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The Crisis of the Social Imaginary of the State: Drone Warfare

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Last week I discussed how the problem of illegal immigration, and in particular the shift from workplace raids to more isolated detentions under President Obama, reflects a crisis in the social imaginary of the state. Another symptom of this crisis is the use of unmanned drones to target terrorist suspects

In fighting the War on Terror, the Bush administration labeled terrorists captured on the field of battle as “unlawful combatants,” meaning that they would not be granted the same protections as lawful combatants under the Geneva Conventions. Most of those who were captured were imprisoned at the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba and were tried in military tribunals, without all the protections normally found in a civil trial. Perhaps most controversially, many terrorists were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” many of which, like waterboarding, amounted to torture. Other captives, through extraordinary rendition, were sent to unsavory regimes, such as Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan, where they were interrogated and tortured by those countries’ intelligence services.

President Obama came to office vowing to reverse many of these policies, which had become a major issue during the presidential campaign. To his credit, President Obama has rejected the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” He has failed, however, to close Guantanamo, after strong opposition arose to establishing detention centers in the United States, and efforts to try detained terrorists, most notably Khalid Sheik Mohammed, in civil court were stymied by restrictions placed on the process by Congress.

The Obama administration has, however, increased one tactic adopted under Bush: the use of armed, unmanned drones to target suspected terrorists and militants. The Bush administration began to use drones as a way to track down and kill al-Qaeda and Taliban militants inaccessible to troops on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Obama, however, has already authorized nearly 300 drone strikes, more than six times the number authorized during the entire eight years of Bush’s presidency, leading to the deaths of between 1,494 and 2,618 people.

Although some have criticized the use of drone strikes because of the collateral civilian casualties that may result, according to the administration, surgical strikes have been perfected to the point where civilian casualties are minimal. If used in a battlefield area, there is no reason why drones could not be used in ways that are consistent with the just war criteria. The real problem with drones is that they are being used as weapons of war without a clearly defined war zone.

The concept of a “war zone” is fundamental to traditional thinking about war and goes hand in hand with the social imaginary of the modern state. The modern state is defined by its sovereignty over a territory strictly marked by borders. A state’s authority over a territory is primarily secured through the social imaginary; in other words, a state has authority over a territory because people believe it has such authority. This authority is ultimately backed up by the power of coercion, but, as Hosni Mubarak found out, coercion alone is often ineffectual in the absence of legitimacy.

A state of war exists when the armed forces of one state enter the territory of another, thus calling into question the reality of the latter state’s sovereignty over that territory. Thus the state of war creates a space, defined by the area of engagement of the two states’ armed forces, in which the hold of the social imaginary of the state is tenuous, and, in the absence of state sovereignty, in which a condition of anarchy reigns. In modern times, this condition has been somewhat mitigated by the existence of treaties outlining the laws of war, but these treaties are completely bound by the social imaginary of the state. They envision wars being fought by soldiers affiliated with states, or with groups fighting for control of a state or to establish a new state (civil wars and revolutions). They also implicitly accept the notion that war creates a space in which actions, in particular killing, which would normally be illegal can be permissible.

The phenomenon of global terrorism has called into question this understanding of war. The September 11 attacks awakened the world to the possibility that terrorists could perpetrate violent acts of a magnitude previously only seen in war, yet not carried out by the traditional agents of war. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda act independently of states and span across borders, and not coincidentally envision a future political community, the Ummah, embodying a social imaginary different from the modern state. Global terrorism is part of “the dark side of globalization,” taking advantage of the same interconnectedness that enables global trade and the spread of cultures worldwide. Terrorist activity, while war-like, does not create a traditional war zone, since a terrorist plot can be carried out in a cave in Afghanistan, an apartment in Hamburg, and a flight school in Florida.

The Bush administration attempted to solve these difficulties by creating the concept of the “unlawful combatant.” Contrary to Giorgio Agamben, this did not represent the imposition of a “state of exception” in which the law was set aside, but rather the recognition of the inadequacy of the social imaginary of the state imbedded in the very laws of war. The extraordinary measures (torture, rendition, etc.) adopted by the Bush administration to combat terrorism reflect not only a fear of future terrorist attacks but also a fear that this inadequacy will undermine the hold of the social imaginary of the state over people’s minds.

The War on Terror, however, has forced the state to cannibalize itself in its efforts to protect itself. In response to the non-territoriality of terrorist networks, the Bush administration extended the war zone to include wherever terrorists are located. This even included the United States itself; in May of 2002 Jose Padilla was arrested at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, and a month later he was declared an enemy combatant (and underwent “enhanced interrogation” while detained). This doctrine implied that simply through the presence of an al-Qaeda affiliate, the territory of the United States could be considered a war zone in which the normal rule of law does not apply, despite the absence of actual combat. But this absence of the rule of law calls into question the state’s ability to perform its own self-defined task, the establishment of the rule of law within its sovereign territory.

In his use of drone warfare, Obama has inherited from Bush the idea that terrorists are combatants in a war not defined by territory. Although obviously diplomatic concerns create serious constraints, theoretically there does not seem to be any limitation on where a drone strike could take place.  For example, most drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan, yet the United States is not at war with Pakistan, and the war zone in the traditional sense is largely in Afghanistan. Even more problematically, an increasing number of drone strikes are taking place in Yemen, against members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, where the U.S. has not been involved in active combat. Also, drone strikes have been used against U.S. citizens, most notably Anwar al-Awlaki, an al Qaeda propagandist killed in Yemen in September of last year.

Therefore, despite rejecting torture, the Obama administration has maintained the category of “unlawful combatant,” even if not in name. Terrorist suspects and Taliban militants can be killed as if they were combatants even when outside of any recognizable war zone, without the legal protections of civilians or legal combatants.

The transition from detention and torture to the use of drones represents a shift from publicity to isolation, similar to that with immigration policy. Although isolated through their detention at Guantanamo, terror detainees under Bush were able to remain in the public eye through their access to lawyers and organizations such as the Red Cross. The treatment of these detainees became a scandal around the world. Practices such as rendition were an attempt to isolate terrorists, but were so closely tied with the scandal surrounding Guantanamo that they failed to avoid publicity. The use of drones is a renewed attempt to take the life of terrorists in isolation to avoid drawing attention to the social imaginary of the state’s inability to adequately make sense of the challenge posed by global terrorism. Obviously this strategy has failed, considering the widespread media attention given to drone warfare in recent months. This failure was inevitable, since the state cannot hide its own inadequacy in the face of our rapidly globalizing world, including such negative aspects as global terrorism.

Last week I promised the outline of a Christian theological response to the crisis of the social imaginary of the state; that will have to wait until next week.

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Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He is the author of The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011) and has published articles in Political Theology, the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, Horizons, and the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics. He is the section editor of Catholic Social Ethics at Political Theology Today.

One Comment

  1. But isn;t Obama’s authority as defined by the NDAA 2012 (which gives him & the executive branch, the CIA & Special Forces et al sovereign immunity and absolute authority to carry out acts of war against “suspected terrorists” anywhere on earth, anytime, without the slightest due process or proof of guilt etc.) simply a throwback to the classic definition of the sovereign (as absolute monarch or virtual god on earth) who exercises the power of life & death over subjects (who are without privileges immunities or rights against the absolute sovereign) without recognizing any strict limits (e.g. US or international law) upon that monopoly on violence? The scandal isn’t that this is something unprecedented or new (“exceptional,” not in Agamben’s sense). It’s as old as the Roman dictators & the 17th century absolute monarchs. The scandal is that an American President, US Congress & US courts can get away with it! in a Post World War II (Post Nuremberg & Geneva Convention etc.) supposedly ruled by international (& domestic) law. And can commit acts (targeted assassination & indefinite detention without trial etc.) already recognized as war crimes under international & domestic law…

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