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The Drone Next Door
Posted on Dec 13, 2013
The news of the day Friday included a dispatch from Saudi Arabia reporting that 11 people were killed by drone-fired missiles in a remote corner of Yemen. The story added that five days before, three men were killed in a drone attack in another part of the country.
The official story is that all the victims of the Friday strike were associated in one way or another to al-Qaida. That’s probably true, but The New York Times story was headlined: "Drone Strike in Yemen Hits Wedding Convoy, Killing 11."
Drones are wonderful, said almost all the Americans I have talked to in recent weeks. And why not? Even if there is bound to be "collateral damage"—that is, killing children and such—our fellow Americans prefer that to having their own children killed in other people’s wars.
On the other hand, in France two weeks ago, most of the people I talked with thought the use of drones was a terrible thing, another example of America’s latest expensive long-reach, low-risk tools to kill people anywhere we feel like doing it.
The whole idea, of course, is terrifying: Air Force pilots on the ground in big leather chairs in New Mexico or outside Syracuse pushing buttons and killing people thousands of miles away, then going home for dinner. But then, so was the idea of dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities more than 60 years ago. But the bombs undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Americans training to invade Japan.
In an article exactly one year ago, the German magazine Der Spiegel described how a drone attack is done in more detail than I have seen in American mass media. A German journalist, Nicola Abe, wrote of a pilot named Brandon Bryant:
"He remembers one incident very clearly when a Predator drone was circling in a figure-eight pattern in the sky above Afghanistan, more than 10,000 kilometers (6,250 miles) away. There was a flat-roofed house made of mud, with a shed used to hold goats in the crosshairs, as Bryant recalls. When he received the order to fire, he pressed a button with his left hand and marked the roof with a laser. The pilot sitting next to him pressed the trigger on a joystick, causing the drone to launch a Hellfire missile. There were 16 seconds left until impact…
"With seven seconds left to go, there was no one to be seen on the ground. Bryant could still have diverted the missile at that point. Then it was down to three seconds. Bryant felt as if he had to count each individual pixel on the monitor. Suddenly a child walked around the corner, he says.
"Second zero was the moment in which Bryant’s digital world collided with the real one in a village between Baghlan and Mazar-e-Sharif.
"Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach.
"‘Did we just kill a kid?’ he asked the man sitting next to him.
"‘Yeah, I guess that was a kid,’" the pilot replied.
"‘Was that a kid?’ they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.
"Then someone they didn’t know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. ‘No. That was a dog,’ the person wrote.
"They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?"
Welcome to pixel war. Soon coming to a town near you. The technology is improving, and Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com is planning to use drones to deliver books to your house. If you go to Google or eBay, you will find drones for sale for a couple of thousand dollars—smaller and less complex than the military models, to be sure, but good enough to check on your neighbors, or blow up their houses.
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