25 Jan 2011

On Immoral Axes and Moral Axmen

By Zygmunt Bauman

During the last world war, George Orwell mused: „As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me. They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them. They are ‘only doing their duty’, as the saying goes.“ A few years later, scanning the vast multi-tiered graveyard called Europe in search the kind of humans who managed to do that to other humans, Hannah Arendt laid bare the “floating” habit of responsibility inside a bureaucratic body; the consequences of such flotation she named “responsibility of nobody”. More than half century later, we could say much the same of the current state of the killing arts. Continuity? Oh yes, there is a continuity, though true to the continuity’s habits, in company with a few discontinuities…

The major novelty is the effacing of status differences between means and ends. Or, rather, the war of independence ending in the victory of axes over the axmen. It is now the axes who select the ends: the heads to be axed. The axmen can do little more to stop them (i.e., to change their minds which they do not have or appeal to their feelings which they do not possess) than did the legendary sorcerer’s apprentice (this allegory is by no means fanciful: as the military experts Tom Shanker and Matt Richtel put it a recent edition of the NYT, “just as the military has long pushed technology forward, it is now at the forefront in figuring out how humans can cope with technology without being overwhelmed by it”). And as the neuroscientist Art Kramer sees the situation, “there is information overload at every level of the military – from the general to the soldier on the ground”. Everybody in the army, “from the general to the soldier on the ground”, has been demoted from the sorcerer’s office to the lowly rank of his apprentice.

Since 11 September, the amount of “intelligence” gathered by the cutting-edge technology at the US Army disposal has risen by 1600%. It is not that the axmen lost their conscience or have been immunized against moral scruples; they simply can’t cope with the volumes of information amassed by the gadgets they operate. The gadgets, as a matter of fact, can now do as well (or as badly…) with or without their help, thank you. Kick the axmen away from their screens, and you’d hardly notice their absence looking at the distribution of results.

By the start to the 21st century, military technology has managed to float and so “depersonalise” responsibility to the extent unimaginable in Orwell’s or Arendt’s time. “Smart”, “intelligent” missiles or the “drones” have taken over the decision-making and the selection of targets from both rank-and-file and the highest placed ranks of the military machine. I would suggest that most seminal technological developments in recent years have not been sought and accomplished in the murderous powers of weapons, but in the area of “adiaphorization” of military killing (i.e., removing it from the category of acts subject to moral evaluation). As Günther Anders warned after Nagasaki but still well before Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, “one wouldn’t gnash teeth when pressing a button… A key is a key”.[i] Whether the pressing of the key starts a kitchen ice-cream-making contraption, feeds current into an electricity network, or lets loose the Horsemen of Apocalypse, makes no difference. “The gesture that will initiate the Apocalypse would not differ from any of the other gestures – and it will be performed, as all other identical gestures, by a similarly routine-guided and routine-bored operator”. “If something symbolizes the satanic nature of our situation, it is precisely that innocence of the gesture”[ii], Anders concludes: “the negligibility of the effort and thought needed to set off a cataclysm – any cataclysm, including the “globocide”…

What is new is the “drone”, aptly called “predator”, that took over the task of gathering and processing information. The electronic equipment of the drone excels in performing its task. But which task? Just like the manifest function of an axe is to enable the axman to execute the convict, the manifest function of the drone is to enable its operator to locate the object of the execution. But the drone that excels in that function and keeps flooding the operator with the tides of information he is unable to digest, let alone promptly and swiftly, “in real time”, to process – may be performing another, latent and unspoken-about function: that of exonerating the operator of the moral guilt that would haunt him were he fully and truly in charge of selecting the convicts for the execution; and, more importantly yet, reassuring the operator in advance that in case a mistake happens, it won’t be blamed on his immorality.

If “innocent people” are killed, it is a technical fault, not a moral failure or sin – and judging from the statute books most certainly not a crime. As Shanker and Richtel put it, “drone-based sensors have given rise to a new class of wired warriors who must filter the information sea. But sometimes they are drowning”. But is not the capacity to drown the operator’s mental (and so, obliquely but inevitably, moral) faculties included in the drone’s design? Is not drowning the operator the drone’s paramount function? When last February 23 Afghan wedding guests were killed, the buttons-pushing operators could blame it on the screens turned into “drool buckets”: they got lost just by staring into them. There were children among the bombs victims, but the operators “did not adequately focus on them amid the swirl of data” – “much like a cubicle worker who loses track of an important e-mail under the mounting pile”. Well, no one would accuse such a cubicle worker of moral failure…

Starting off a cataclysm (including, as Anders insists, “the globocide”) has now become yet easier and more plausible than it used to be when Anders wrote down his warnings. The “routine-bored operator” has been joined by his colleague and his probable replacement and successor – with his eyes fixed on a “drool bucket”, and his mind drowning in a “swirl of data”…


[i] See Günther Anders, Der Mann auf der Bruecke, Munich 1959, p.144.
[ii] See Günther Anders, Le temps de la fin, Paris 2007 (originally 1960), pp.52-53.

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