Moral Dilemmas as Propaganda

UK Release Poster

Eye In The Sky is meant to convey the agony of deciding whether or not to kill terrorists with drones even if there is “collateral damage.” It features a star-studded cast including Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman in one of his last roles, Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox. It is also a cunning piece of propaganda.

Spoiler Alert! Don’t read any further if you haven’t seen the movie and plan on doing so.

The plot is rather basic. The bad guys (numbers 4, 3 and 2 respectively on the British most-wanted-list in East Africa) are schedule to meet in a house in Nairobi. A Kenyan anti-terror squad is standing by to arrest them. An American Reaper drone hovers above, the eye in the sky. There is, of course, confusion. Some suspects arrive as scheduled, but others were already in the house. They leave again for a different house in a Nairobi slum which, oddly, is controlled by al Shabaab, the Somali jihadist group. The Kenyan anti-terror unit has some amazing tech—miniature drones the size of a bird and a beetle—which broadcast HD quality live stream from inside the house around the globe. Two of the men inside are being outfitted with explosive vests, suicide bombers about to embark on a mission to kill innocent civilians. The capture mission becomes a kill mission. All this happens in the first third of the film. The rest is a rehashing of the Philosophy 101 utilitarian dilemma. Is it okay to kill one sweet, innocent girl in order to save hundreds of victims who’d be blown up by the suicide bombers?

At the core of the movie is a version of the “ticking time bomb” scenario usually invoked to justify torture. In the torture scenario, the terrorist knows where the bomb is hidden that will kill scores of people. The police know that the terrorist knows the bomb’s location. He won’t reveal that information. Torture becomes the only option to make the terrorist spill the beans. The utilitarian calculation in this scenario is that violating human rights is okay because it saves the lives of so many people. Countless episodes of the TV show 24 have used that scenario to normalize torture during the Bush years.

In Eye In The Sky, the ticking time bomb becomes the two suicide bombers who are on their way to blowing themselves up at some shopping mall. Helen Mirren, the colonel in charge of the mission, is like the police in the torture scenario. She’s got the bombers and knows that only they know where they will blow themselves up. The sweet girl who’s set up a bread stand outside the house where the terrorists meet will become “collateral damage” once the Hellfire missiles strike the house. Taking of her life, like torture in the above example, is okay because it saves the lives of so many people.

24 and shows like it normalized torture. Eye In The Sky does the same thing for drone strikes and resulting killing of civilians. Almost nothing depicted in the movie actually happens during the current drone strikes executed by the US in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The movie’s agonizing decision making certainly doesn’t happen (although some drone pilots have experienced PTSD). The majority of drone strikes are so-called signature strikes, that is, attacks against targets that look like they might be militants. There is no fancy beetle drone, no positive ID, no certain knowledge that the individuals involved are indeed terrorists. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, almost two thirds of all attacks in Pakistan are against buildings without knowing who’s inside. That means, the limited utilitarian calculus (one little girl dead to save hundreds of others) doesn’t exist. Instead, entire buildings are blown up, and with them scores of civilians. According to TBIJ, the ratio of civilian to total casualties is particularly high when religious buildings are destroyed.

The utilitarian calculation presented to the audience only works because the universe of possible options has been artificially reduced to two. Either we kill one innocent girl, or the bad guys will kill hundreds of innocent civilians. In reality, there are always more options. Why not follow the suicide bombers and stop them at a safe spot? With all the fancy tech the Kenyan anti-terror squad had at their disposal that should have been easy. Why not close the malls until the men have been caught? Why not cordon off that district controlled by al Shabaab so that the men can’t leave. By limiting the options to only two, the movie makes “collateral damage” a sad but logical part of the war on terror and normalizes extra-judicial killings as the only sane option.

Add to that the depiction of civilians as wimpy political appointees trying to kick the can down the street and thereby standing in the way of the resolute military officers, and you have a nice propaganda piece. That trope reaches its climax when General Benson (Alan Rickman in his best Professor Snape form) shuts up the only civilian (played by Monica Dolan) who opposed the attack all along by telling her that he knows war better than any civilian. The message is clear. War is hell but we gotta do what we gotta do, so get out of the way and let the professionals do their job.

Since 2004, drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have killed between 517 and 1137 civilians of which 186 to 227 were children. The majority of those were killed during the Obama administration. Whether or not these deaths saved innocent lives anywhere is not known.

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