In its deadly attacks in densely populated Gaza, the Israeli Defense Force is employing a technique they call “roof knocking.” First drones fire small missiles without warheads on a residential building, intended only to shake the building before armed missiles destroy it minutes later. The IDF calls these “warning shots” and they are often preceded by telephone calls to some residents telling them to flee from the impending obliteration of their homes.
The Jerusalem Post celebrates the tactic as humane and moral, “How the IDF invented ‘Roof Knocking’, the tactic that saves lives in Gaza.” “How are you? Is everything okay? This is the Israeli military. We need to bomb your home and we are making every effort to minimize casualties. Please make sure that no one is nearby since in five minutes we will attack,” is the standard phone call to building residents, sounding more like a deadly threat than a friendly heads up or a lifesaving warning. Those who do not get the call but only hear the buzzing of the drones and feel their homes shake from projectiles banging on their roofs might be more likely to hunker down inside than to risk taking to the streets, as if there is any safe refuge in Gaza today anywhere.
Likewise, when drones are also being adopted by police departments in the United States, their use is touted as a less violent alternative to conventional methods. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police officers in Minneapolis, and the deaths of countless other people of color, demands for police reform are being made in cities across the United States. In response to this urgent crisis, some police departments are straining their credibility by offering drones as a solution to tensions between police and the community. Police in Chula Vista, California, for example, claim that their drones are “a tool for de-escalation,” one that they say “fosters public trust.”
In the private sphere, a South African firm called Desert Wolf is marketing a “Skunk” drone to mining firms facing labor disputes, armed with pepper-spray ammunition, dye-marker balls and solid plastic balls, blinding lasers (prohibited for use in war under the Geneva Convention) and on-board speakers that can scream orders to people on the ground. “We designed and developed the Skunk because of a huge safety risk that had to be addressed,” said Desert Wolf’s managing director Hennie Kieser, citing a strike over pay in 2012 that resulted in 44 deaths at a South African platinum mine. “By removing the police on foot, using non-lethal technology, I believe that everyone will be much safer.”
Marketing the public image of the drone as a kinder, gentler, safer way to make war, to quell striking workers or to police our cities might have begun with President Obama, who justified drone assassinations, insisting that “by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.” In truth, most of those killed in U.S. drone attacks are civilians, few are combatants by any definition and even the small number of those targeted as suspected terrorists are victims of extrajudicial executions. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Obama’s first term, General James E. Cartwright, had already noted “blowback” from the drone program: “If you’re trying to kill your way to a solution, no matter how precise you are, you’re going to upset people even if they’re not targeted” and General Stanley McChrystal, Obama’s commander of forces in Afghanistan, warned that “For every innocent person you kill, you create ten new enemies.”
One of the greatest dangers posed by the proliferation of drones around the world today is exactly that illusion of their precision and safety. Those who use and profit from drones can wash their hands of the horror and bask in their stated good intentions, but the people who are targeted know them as tools of racism, terror and repression.
The illusion that war can be made safer and the control of repressed people made kinder through the use of drones only makes war and repression more likely and spawns a cycle of violence that is even more intractable. Despite the self-serving defenses offered by the IDF, the Chula Vista police department, Desert Wolf and Barack Obama, aerial weaponized drones and military and police drone surveillance are a scourge to be eliminated.