Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Casting the Runes

The CIA is allegedly supplying foreign informants with electronic chips that help UAVs to identify and destroy targets:

It sounds like a tinfoil hat nightmare, come to life: tiny electronic homing beacons, guiding CIA killer drones to their targets. But local residents and Taliban militants in Pakistan’s tribal wildlands say that’s exactly what’s happening. Tribesman in Waziristan are being paid to “plant the electronic devices” near militant safehouses, they tell the Guardian. “Hours or days later, a drone, guided by the signal from the chip, destroys the building with a salvo of missiles.”
This reminds me of M.R. James' 1911 horror story Casting the Runes, the villain of which murders a man by handing him a slip of paper covered with runes that mark him for death at the hands of a demon. The tables are turned on the villain when the paper is eventually passed back to him. (That's fiction for you.)

Presumably, someone always doublechecks each chip's coordinates before sending out a UAV, in order to make sure it hasn't been placed on a hospital or a school or an NGO facility. If so, we can stop worrying about that, and concentrate on worrying about this:
19 year-old Habibur Rehman made a videotaped “confession” of planting such devices, just before he was executed by the Taliban as an American spy. “I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at Al Qaeda and Taliban houses,” he said. "If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars.”

But Rehman says he didn’t just tag jihadists with the devices. “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money,” he added. Which raises the possibility that the unmanned aircraft — America’s key weapons in its covert war on Pakistan’s jihadists and insurgents — may have been lead to the wrong targets.
Apart from the remote possibility that people could collect these chips on behalf of AQ (or whomever), and use them for all sorts of practical jokes, it seems like there are some excellent opportunities here for very emphatic score-settling. It's not difficult to imagine a couple million bucks going up in smoke so that we can inadvertently take sides in some longstanding local feud.

That's assuming Rehman's story is true. The idea that we'd give a 19-year-old $122 to scatter these chips around like a lethal Johnny Appleseed seems farfetched to me. On the other hand, so do the last sixty years.

If it is true, we can at least be fairly certain that the evildoers will not be reverse-engineering these chips; hell, they barely understand how to use telephones. If they want sophisticated equipment like this, they'll probably have to wait until their wealthy proxies can buy it readymade at IDEX.

In the meantime, that thoughtful centrist Leon Panetta assures us that UAVs are "the only game in town in terms of confronting or trying to disrupt the al Qaeda leadership." (Apart from feeding them cookies, that is.) This overconfident, illogical assertion is entirely different from Dick Cheney's overconfident, illogical assertions on torture. For one thing, it's Panetta speaking.

The virtue of these weapons is supposed to be that they allow us to act as we see fit, without taking "unnecessary" risks, let alone suffering casualties. In fact, that's one of the worst things about them. As P.W. Singer argues, "These weapons don’t just create greater physical distance, but also a different sort of psychological distance and disconnection. The bomber pilot isn’t just above his target, but seven thousand miles away. He doesn’t share with his foes even those brief minutes of danger that would give them a bond of mutual risk."

Which brings us back to James' story. The odd thing about casting the runes is that you can't simply mail them to the victim, or slip them into someone's jacket pocket or wallet. The spell doesn't work unless you meet your target face to face, with whatever personal risk that may entail. Even demons have their limits, it seems.

In unrelated news:
Glasgow video game company T-Enterprise has hired Moazzam Begg, a former inmate at Guantanamo Bay, as a consultant on upcoming video game Rendition: Guantanamo, a title set in the infamous U.S. prison camp.

(Illustration from Jacques Tourneur's film Curse of the Demon, 1957.)


grouchomarxist said...

"In the trees! It's coming!"

Not only a brilliant analogy, but a nice reference to one of my favorite stories and movies (I'm a big fan of Jacques Tourneur).

Sadly, this sounds all too believable. I can't imagine that whoever thought this up was so completely oblivious to history or human nature they were unaware of the potential here for score-settling, or the sort of fraud which can have particularly lethal consequences.

But then, I'd bet they were willing to accept a certain amount of "collateral damage". I guess it all depends which side of the video monitor you're on ...

Woody (Tokin Librul/Rogue Scholar/ Helluvafella!) said...

The use of drone aircraft, piloted by keyboard jockeys three continents away, raining down death and destruction with no further warrant than the mere recognition of a radio signal strikes me as a war-crime in and of itself.

If nothing else, it is evidence of homicidal indifference.

When the next flock of our neo-colonialist chickens comes home to roost, it's not gonna be a pretty sight, and I reckon it'll far outstrip the tragedy of 2001.

Albuquerque, unfortunately, would be a logical target for such a retributive strike, with our labs and our airbase and our stockpiles of tactical nukes stored in bunkers at the end of the military runway...


I would rather wrestle rattlesnakes and scorpions, naked, on the bubbling asphalt of an Oklahoma City fundi church parking lot strewn with broken beer bottles at mid day, in mid-summer than move again...