The Moments in Between

The major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its actions; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary” – Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish 


Drones are precise they say – they only target individuals that are a ‘threat’ to the particular domestic population. Yet what actually happens in the moments in between the strikes – to the mothers, children, taxi drivers, farmers, who live under the constant threat of surveillance and death?

In my previous column, I examined how drones are a unique technological development that have exacerbated the asymmetric power dynamics of modern warfare. Here, I will consider the extent to which drones threaten and control the everyday behavior of the population living under their presence.

A study conducted by Stanford and New York University published in 2012 entitled Living Under Dronesexamines the quotidian reality of those living in the Northwest region of Pakistan: FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). Sharing a porous border with Afghanistan, FATA is a semi-autonomous territory, that has been subjected to a high frequency drone strikes. Under the Bush administration, the CIA carried out at least 52 drone strikes inside Pakistan, while under Obama’s leadership between 2009 and 2016, the number of strikes drastically increased to at least 375.

The Stanford and NYU 2012 study, which conducted nearly 130 interviews with victims and witnesses of the strikes, as well as medical professionals, humanitarian workers, and local journalists, concluded that the drones triggered ubiquitous “fear, anxiety and stress” throughout the local population.

The personal anecdotes are harrowing and profound, offering a rare glimpse into the ramifications of the drones on even the most seemingly banal activities.

A taxi driver, discusses the anticipatory anxiety that permeates his daily family life:

No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us. Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . .  cards – no matter what we are doing, we are always thinking the drone will strike us. So we are scared to do anything, no matter what

The drones impede educational activities.  Due to a fear of congregating, which for ‘signature’ strikes is a sign of potentially suspicious behavior for the distant operator, parents and children alike fear the school might be attacked. A top student before the strike notes:

Our minds have been diverted from studying. We cannot learn things because we are always in fear of the drones hovering over us, and it really scares the small kids who go to school

A teenager, expresses the sharp contrasts in daily social activities before and after the presence of US drones:

We all used to get together, all our friends in the village. We used to have fun. But now, that’s not the case anymore. Earlier, in the village, we used to sit late into the night, till one o’clock in the morning, but now everybody’s habits have changed. Everybody goes home directly in the evening

The strikes erode the social foundation of the community, as these interviewees discuss:

Everybody after the strike seems to have come to the conclusion that we cannot gather together in large numbers

We can’t go to markets. We can’t drive cars. When they’re hovering over us, we’re all scared. One thinks they’ll drop it on our house, and another thins it’ll be on our house, so we run out of our houses

The drones generate a totalizing control of the entirety of the population, in which life becomes the ultimate target. As Foucault expresses in Discipline and Punish, the ideal disciplinary mechanisms function outside the “sudden, violent, discontinuous forms that are bound up with the exercise of sovereignty.”

The emergent technology of drone warfare represents the synthesis of advanced disciplinary and regulatory mechanisms with the classical notion of the sovereign right to kill. Racism becomes the justification for the reconciliation between the indiscriminate acts of violence and anxiety directed at one population, and the bio-political ‘right’ of another society to develop and maintain its own security and quality of life.

Image Courtesy of Rizwan Ullah Wazir, Digan City North Waziristan


Key Sources:

Foucault M. (1995) Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.

Foucault M. (2004) Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-76. London: Penguin Books.

Shaw, I. (2013) Predator Empire: The Geopolitics of US Drone Warfare. Geopolitics, vol. 18 (3), pp. 536-559.

International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, (2012) Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Strikes in Pakistan.

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