Sleep Dealer is a lovely film. Flawed, sure — the romantic bits are corny, the characters’ sudden shifts of heart are abrupt — but the ideas behind the film and they way they’re depicted are great. If you like mildly-speculative science fiction that conveys powerful social commentary, you should definitely look for it.
But you should look for it soon, because some of the sci-fi components won’t be fiction long.
For instance, the murderous drones. I watched Sleep Dealer shortly after it was released (meaning, as soon as the Stanford library bought a copy of the DVD), and the drones were pretty shocking. One character is a soldier who participates in a live-action reality TV show where home viewers are shown a drone’s eye view of the war on terror.
Of course, there are many ways to decide who counts as a terrorist. In the Ramayana, for instance, it’s considered terrorism for a low-caste man to pray in the same manner as his betters. If a ruler allows that sort of behavior in his kingdom, women will turn wanton, sons will die before their time. Here’s a passage from Valmiki’s Ramayana:
On the banks of that pond one ascetic was performing the most austere penances with his legs upwards and head downwards. There upon approaching him, Rama Said–O you of good vows, blessed are you; I do ask you, now, O you highly effulgent and grown old in asceticism, in what Varna you are born. I put this question out of curiosity. I am the son of king Dasaratha and my name is Rama.
For what are you going through such hard austerities? Is it heaven, or anything else that you pray for? O ascetic, I wish to hear, of the purpose for which you are performing such hard penances. Art you a Brahmana, or an irrepressible Ksatriya or the third caste Vaisyas or a Sudra? Do you speak the truth and you shall be crowned with auspiciousness.
Hearing the words of Rama, the ascetic, whose face was downwards, gave out his degraded birth and communicated to him for what he was performing ascetic observances.
Hearing the words of Rama of unwearied actions, the ascetic, with his face downwards, said.
O highly illustrious Rama, I am born in the race of Sudras; and with a view to reach the region of the celestials with my body I am going through these austere penances.
O Kakutstha, I shall never utter a falsehood since I am willing to conquer the region of gods. I am a Sudra and my name is Sambuka.
The Sudra ascetic having said this, Rama took out of scabbard a beautiful sharp sword and chopped off his head therewith.
But perhaps you’re more interested in contemporary U.S. policy. As far as I know, we aren’t murdering anyone for simply praying… but praying with the wrong people might draw our wrath. Here is a passage from Gregoire Chamayou’s excellent Theory of the Drone (translated by Janet Lloyd):
Apart from these “personal strikes,” [killing individuals from an authorized list of suspects] there are also “signature strikes,” here meaning strikes authorized on the basis of traces, indications, or defining characteristics. Such strikes target individuals whose identity remains unknown but whose behavior suggests, signals, or signs membership in a “terrorist organization.”
In such cases, the strike is made “without knowing the precise identity of the individuals targeted.” It depends solely on their behavior, which, seen from the sky, appears to “correspond to a ‘signature’ of pre-identified behavior that the United States links to militant activity.” Today, strikes of this type, against unknown suspects, appear to constitute the majority of cases.
In Sleep Dealer, some people murdered under suspicion of being terrorists are innocent. It’s clear that the same is true in real life. The drones fly far overhead & relay a grainy depiction of the world below at high latency to employees who must decide on the basis of sketchy information whether the pixelated figures below should live or die. The low camera resolution probably helps drone pilots maintain emotional distance when they choose wrong; they don’t have a crisp view of children’s deaths. That low resolution & emotional distance probably increases the frequency with which they choose wrong, though. A clear view of shared humanity induces greater restraint.
And the people below, the putative terrorists whom the United States is terrorizing, know that death accompanies mere suspicion, & that incomplete, low-res information often gives rise to misguided suspicions. Here’s another passage from Chamayou’s book:
David Rohde, a New York Times journalist kidnapped in 2008 and held in Waziristan for seven months, was one of the first Westerners to describe the effects that this lethal continuous surveillance produced upon the populations subjected to it. Evoking a “hell on earth,” he added: “The drones were terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”
The accounts collected in this region by the authors of a 2012 report titled “Living Under the Drones” are in a similar vein:
They’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike or attack.
Everyone is scared all the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared. We always have this fear in our head.
Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.
Children, grown-up people, women, they are terrified … They scream in terror.
One inhabitant of Datta Khel — a place hit more than thirty times by drones in the course of the past three years — says that his neighbors “have lost their mental balance … are just locked in a room. Just like you lock people in prison, they are locked in a room.”
Drones are indeed petrifying. They inflict mass terror upon entire populations. It is this — over and above the deaths, the injuries, the destruction, the anger, and the grieving — that is the effect of permanent lethal surveillance: it amounts to a psychic imprisonment within a perimeter no longer defined by bars, barriers, and walls, but by the endless circling of flying watchtowers up above.
Honestly, Chamayou’s book is great — I highly recommend it.
I even thought I’d hate it; I don’t like reading about war, and I’d seen several pretty critical reviews. Plus, I simply could not imagine why a philosopher would find it necessary to write an entire book about drones. To my mind, killing is killing, so why would it matter whether we fought with machine guns, sniper rifles, missiles, or drones?
For instance, drone pilots operate within the United States in unmarked facilities. As reprehensible as the Boston Marathon bombing was, and as deranged as I think the perpetrators had to have been, acts of violence against any public gathering are about equally likely to harm those currently employed to murder suspected terrorists in the Middle East.
The use of drones forces an opposing army — if a two-sided war is indeed being fought — to target the general population. Here’s the heart of the argument in Chamayou’s words:
However, the faults are not solely technical. They are also politico-strategic. In 1999, two Chinese strategists suggested that the American preference for “zero dead” offered the United States’ adversaries a rapid, easy, and low-cost means of thwarting the world’s greatest power: “These common American soldiers who should be on the battlefield have now become the most costly security in war, like precious china bowls that people are afraid to break. All of the opponents who have engaged in battle with the American military have probably mastered the secret of success — if you have no way of defeating this force, you should kill its rank and file soldiers.” The dronization of the armed forces further radicalizes this strategic fault. If the military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach. Even if the soldiers are beyond reach, civilians are not. As one American soldier explains, “We must understand that attempts to armorize our force against all potential enemy threats … shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace. In doing so, we have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon those who do not possess the material resources to bear it — the civilian populace.”
Chamayou’s analysis of suicide bombers was also enlightening. Most people I’ve talked to have a reflexive distaste for suicide bombing — some words I’ve heard are “cold” and “cowardly.” I too think the idea is horrible. It’s hard for me to even imagine what it would feel like to knowingly strap explosives to my body.
But Chamayou builds an argument from the history of military honor, the idea of willing sacrifice in defense of a cause, to work toward the idea that suicide bombers care so deeply about their struggle that they are willing to give up their very lives in defense of their ideas. Whereas the U.S. cares so deeply about the cause that we are willing to risk a several-million-dollar drone to get our way.
Given that one side cares so much they’ll risk their lives, and the other side cares so much they’ll risk their money, it’s possible that my reflexive moral repugnance of suicide bombing was misplaced.
I am very grateful to Chamayou for giving me so much to think about. You, too, should read his book. (Look! Here’s another link!)