The film Eye in the Sky is being shown at Bridport’s Electric Palace on Saturday 11 June. With his own eye on the ground, Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal action charity Reprieve, gives a front row account of the dangers faced by a world which engages in drone warfare.
The Drone Age: I like to think I coined the phrase. It describes a new world in which war appears to be cost-free for the US and Britain.
A Predator drone circles 24 hours a day over suspected enemies, controlled by a ‘pilot’ in an air-conditioned Portakabin in Nevada or Northamptonshire who periodically swivels his chair to reach for another cup of coffee. The pilot zooms his camera in, decides a bearded man in faraway Waziristan deserves to die, and presses the button. Seconds later, a Hellfire missile obliterates anyone in the vicinity.
Politicians can score populist points by ordering assassinations on the other side of the world. Death becomes a videogame where no American or British life is at risk, and no flag-draped body bags come home to remind Western people of the horrors of war.
The Manhattan Project thrust the Nuclear Age upon us without public debate. Likewise, the CIA initiated the Drone Age by secretively compiling a list of people slated for assassination. Each week, on what has been dubbed ‘Terror Tuesday’, Constitutional Law Professor-turned-President Barack Obama watches a powerpoint display as the CIA proposes who should be killed. Then, like Nero in the Colosseum, he gives a thumbs up or down to death.
Executing an assassination Kill List has generally been deemed illegal since Emerich de Vattel declared it so in 1758. Yet here, led by America, we ignore centuries of evolving law, just as we did with torture and detention without trial. And we do so, urged on by politicians who assure us that the CIA has precise intelligence, to complement the precision of the Hellfire missile.
These are the same politicians who assured us that the prisoners in Guantanámo Bay were the ‘worst of the worst’ and should legitimately be held (and tortured) without trial – only to have the lawyers demonstrate that, after years of individual questioning by hoards of interrogators, more than 90 percent of the 779 detainees were no threat to anybody, most of them affirmatively innocent.
Now, in Colin Firth’s latest film Eye in the Sky, the British and Americans conspire together to assassinate a woman they deem a dire threat to the security of the world. (It is odd that our security is in such jeopardy, that one deranged person can be deemed such a danger.) In the course of plotting her death, they worry that there is at least a 50 percent danger of ‘collateral damage’ – the Hellfire missile may also kill a young girl selling bread.
I welcome art seeking to imitate fact, if only because it provokes debate on important subjects. Eye in the Sky is well-researched, and an all-star cast – from Helen Mirren as the obsessed British colonel to Alan Rickman in his final role as the British general – deliver a tense film. But the truth is far worse than fiction would have us believe. It would spoil the film to reveal whether the strike succeeds in killing the White Widow, but our recent report reveals that for every attempt to kill an HVT (a ‘High Value Target’), the Hellfire missiles miss an average of three times – one man survived for a 19th feline life. And while I will not say whether the little girl lives or dies, but for every strike that ultimately kills the intended victim, an average of nine children (not one) forfeit their lives as collateral damage.
Imagine what you would feel towards the Government if they calculatedly killed your child; then you will have some sense of why the people of Waziristan, along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, now rank the United States as the most hated nation on earth. Imagine how anxious people get at the slightest threat of danger, and you will begin to understand the exponential rise in anti-anxiety prescriptions for the 800,000 residents of Waziristan, where skies are riven day and night by the trail of Hellfire missiles. Anyone who believes that the periodic ‘success’ in this assassination programme makes the world a safer place needs to take fewer hallucinogens.