Blind Eye in the Sky

Five thoughts about targeted killings following the new Hollywood targeted killings fiction ‘Eye in the Sky’:

1. ‘Eye in the Sky’ treats intelligence as certain facts. It reinforces the illusion that we have all the information, and that the information that we have is beyond doubt. In fact, intelligence is limited and uncertain in various ways. First, we only have what we are able to collect. As terrorists act in clandestine, data collection is challenging. Some data are beyond our reach, while other data are inaccurate, false or wrongly interpreted. Second, interpreting intelligence becomes even more challenging, as we are yet to agree on what defines a terrorist act or who should be characterized as terrorist. Third, reliance on sophisticated technology does not solve these inherent uncertainties, as data analysis by robust algorithms is as limited as the partial information on which it is based. Paradoxically, the reliance on sophisticated technology might even reduce uncertainty, as it might increase risk aversion and overconfidence in what we (think we) know and in the decisions that we make.

2. The scenario is as unrealistic as the torture ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario. Typically, targeted killing operations do not target suspected terrorists who wear explosives and are ready to bomb a shopping mall. In fact, when suspected terrorists do wear explosives and are embarking on a suicide bombing operation no one would argue that they should not be attacked. However, there are often alternatives to a hellfire attack on a home in a residential neighborhood. The movie’s choice to present this method as the only option, with no alternatives either in method or time, shadows the real debate concerning bombing a civilian home in a residential neighborhood due to the apparent presence of suspected terrorists nearby. Indeed, in many US targeted killing operations in Pakistan and Syria many civilians were killed or injured and numerous civilian residences were destroyed, leaving local families without a roof or shelter. Conveniently, the movie deserts the residential neighborhood immediately after the attack, and chooses to focus, instead, on the trauma caused to the US pilot and drone operators.

3. Women in the military or politics (or elsewhere) do not burst into tears every time something bad happens. The scene when the male General berates the female secretary of foreign affairs for criticizing him while ‘eating her biscuits and drinking her tea’ and then tells her she should ‘never tell a soldier he doesn’t understand the price of war,’ is chauvinistic and insulting. The fact that she responded to this insult with massive crying just made it worse. Similarly, the female drone operator cried so much she could barely follow her instructions, while her superior male pilot shed a tear or two, but kept it cool; sensitive yet in full control.

4. The one realistic point in the script was the way the Somali agent was treated: as disposable. Sent again and again on suicide missions, based on the racist assumption that all Somalis look alike. His life were the only ones left completely out of the algorithm’s robust calculations.

5. Finally, watching this movie a few months after British and US forces targeted an ISIS hacker in northern Syria and killed instead 3 innocent bystanders and wounded 5, and shortly after a US force continuously fired at a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, killing 30 people, mostly medical staff and patients and completely destroying the only free trauma center in northern Afghanistan, portrayed the dilemmas in this Hollywood fiction as both unrealistic and self-righteous.

Similarly to so many other mainstream TV shows and movies, ‘Eye in the Sky’ continues the efforts to simplify and dogmatize a complex reality, and proves the maxim that ‘the first casualty of war is the truth.’ By using fake dichotomies between good and bad, us and them, now or never, the movie erodes some of the most important moral dilemmas of our time.

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Conference to address drone strikes, cyber war, role of international law

On Friday 22 March, Vermont Law School will host a conference on “Reaching Critical Mass: International and U.S. Law in the Wake of Modern Exigencies.” The conference will explore issues in protecting against modern security threats while observing international law and protecting human rights.  Panelists include:

JenniferDaskalJennifer Daskal, former counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for National Security at the Department of Justice and former senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch; author of the recent op-ed in the New York Times, Don’t Close Guantanamo.

VickiDivollVicki Divoll, former general counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and former deputy legal adviser to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center; author of the recent op-ed in the New York Times, Who Says You Can Kill Americans, Mr. President?

NazModirzadehNaz Modirzadeh, who leads the Counterterrorism and Humanitarian Engagement Project of the HLS-Brookings Project on Law and Security, Harvard Law School. Her article “The Dark Sides of Convergence: A Pro-Civilian Critique of the Extraterritorial Application of Human Rights Law in Armed Conflict,” U.S. Naval War College International Law Studies (Blue Book) Series, was awarded the Lieber Prize by the American Society of International Law.

GaborRonaAmong the additional distinguished speakers at this conference is Vermont Law School alumnus Gabor Rona, JD ’78, International Legal Director of Human Rights First.

JohnMcGinnisA keynote address will be delivered by John O. McGinnis of the Northwestern University School of Law (right), whose remarks are titled “Should International Law Be Our Law?”  For the conference schedule and full list of speakers, click here.  To register, click here.  As readers will see from the array of speakers, we anticipate robust discussion throughout the day.

The speaker list reflects the collaboration of the two student groups at Vermont Law School that partnered to organize the conference, the International Law Society (ILS) and the Federalist Society, led by conference co-chairs Molly Gray and Richard Sala. Before coming to Vermont Law School, ILS co-chair Molly Gray MollyGray(left) was Congressional Affairs adviser to the ICRC in Washington D.C.  She led field missions to Haiti, Uganda, Georgia, the Western Balkans, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Vermont Law School’s Federalist Society president Richard Sala (right) RichardSalais a Captain in the Marine Corps. His operational experience includes operations in Kosovo as a member of NATO’s Kosovo Strategic Force and a tour in Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The partnering of these two student groups in putting on this conference reflects sincere efforts to explore and understand some of the most important international legal issues today.