A lia should not have died.
THE young girl dancing with her hula hoop in her backyard in a poor area of Nairobi should not have been hit by a missile from an aircraft she never even saw. But tragedy occurred—and this is the important part in the film Eye in the Sky.
Eye in the Sky is a fiction that tells realistically the bitter dilemmas of modern warfare.
Three Al-Shabaab terrorists are meeting in a safehouse in Nairobi. They have been under surveillance for some time. A multinational team is at work: led by a British colonel, armed with a USAF MQ-9 Reaper drone operated from Nevada, assisted by face-recognition cameras operated from Hawai’i, and helped by an African from a local market who uses a mini detection camera that flies like a bee. The mission: capture.
But it turns out that the Al-Shabaab men are not just meeting. They are arming a suicide bomber who is about to leave. So the plan changes: the terrorists must be killed as soon as possible. Mission Hellfire is prepared.
But as luck would have it, just a few meters from the target, Alia is playing. The order to fire is stayed. “I am the commander. I will only fire when the little girl is not there,” the pilot Second Lieutenant Watts says.
With the drone camera at an altitude of 20,000 feet, Watts has been watching Alia’s movements for some time. He is entranced. The leader of the team, Colonel Katherine Powell, seeks authority from her superiors in London. They confer but give no clear answer. Finally, Powell can delay no longer. After trying to ensure that there will be minimal chance of hitting Alia, the trigger is pulled…
The dilemma in Eye in the Sky is not one person’s alone. Tim Potter is faced with the choice: to save the girl, but in so doing the suicide bomber will escape and 80 people will die; or to fire the missile at once and kill the terrorists, but Alia will be a casualty. Watching the girl dancing and selling bread, the term ‘collateral damage’ is too abstract.
But the operation succeeds. The Al-Shabaab men are killed. With this proviso: no matter how sophisticated the technology, or how careful the operators so that there are no innocent victims, Alia is still hit.
“The first casualty of war is truth.” This Ancient Greek phrase opens Gavin Hood’s film. But Eye in the Sky shows that there is another deserving casualty: pride.
The position of being all-seeing on high, like the drone, is huge power with the simple formula: ‘above = to see = all-knowing’. Maybe this is why humans imagine God in Heaven above, and the gods at Mahameru. Maybe this is why we talk about power as structure with a ‘peak’. Those in power—kings or presidents—are at that peak. We imagine a pyramid. And not just that. We imagine the pyramid with a spying eye.
The pyramid-with-the-eye is an allegory of the modern state. Traditional rulers did not consider themselves to be close to the sky. Megalomanics they probably were, but they felt closer to the earth. In Java they named themselves ‘Mangkubumi’ (Embracing the Earth), ‘Paku Alam’ (Nail of the World), ‘Hamengku Buwono’ (Embracing the World). The founder of the Mataram empire was even known as ‘Ngabehi Loring Pasar’, Lord North of the Market—something extremely local. There is no cosmic impression. I do not find esteem connected to visual faculties.
“The premodern state was…partially blind,” James C Scott wrote in his Seeing Like a State. Scott gives an interesting analysis of the birth process of the modern state: a political construction with roles and capabilities that did not previously exist.
The word he uses is ‘seeing’. The premodern state that was ‘partially blind’ ruled not with ‘seeing’ but with aura: the modern state is the opposite: lacking aura, it comes, it sees, it rules. With technology.
In the beginning, this technology was bureaucracy, security administration, the population census, and registration of citizens with identity cards. Also the making of maps, freezing the measure of space and time, geographical division. In its later development, as is now happening in China, this technology is much more penetrating, all-embracing, dominating. By fitting surveillance cameras everywhere, the state soars like the powerful drone: “We see, you are in my sights.”
The People’s Republic of China is the clearest example of the ‘disciplinary power’ Foucault depicted. It is like the ‘panopticon’, the new kind of prison Jeremy Bentham designed in the 18th century. With its tall tower, tidy, and without any physical torture, the ‘panopticon’ is able to observe, know, and control everything.
In one part of his book Surveiller et punir (the well-known English translation is titled Discipline and Punish), Foucault quotes an ordinance from Europe in the 17th century that set out the actions that had to be taken when a city was struck by plague; today people would call this ‘lockdown’.
The city is bolted. “This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a ﬁxed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical ﬁgure, in which each individual is constantly located…”
The ‘panopticon’ creates the sense, outside of prison, of being perpetually observed—without being able to see what and who is doing the observing. We are tamed. “The plague-stricken town,” Foucault says, “is the utopia of the perfectly governed city.”
But ‘utopia’ can never exist, it can only be held as an ideal. In Seeing like a State, Scott shows examples from history of how mistakes often occur, on a large scale, when—with inadvertent pride—the state sees from above and plans life on earth that it cannot completely control.
The ‘eye in the sky’ is not blind, for sure. But it cannot always predict what is on earth: out of nowhere epidemics can spread and thousands of Alias die.