Language, Technology, and the Erasure of Atrocity

“Sanitized killing is cheap and efficient. Rule of law principles and other disturbing issues aren’t considered. Secrecy and accountability go unaddressed.” –Stephen Lendman, “America’s Drone Command Centers: Remote Warriors Operate Computer Keyboards and Joysticks“.

It is estimated that one in three CIA drone strikes in Pakistan kills a child . Between 2004 and 2011 at least 168 children have been killed in America’s drone  war in that country alone.

In the purported digital age one is frequently presented with the notion that communication will inevitably make society a more coherent whole. Yet media technology has failed to conquer the combined obstacles of the censorial use of language and geographic distance when it comes to relating the many horrors of modern warfare. Instead, such technology has reinforced a now familiar tradition of language games that cleanses atrocities from the popular memory.

In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language“, George Orwell remarks on how “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” Thus, political language “has to consist largely of euphemism, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in modern journalistic accounts of war crimes, where terms such as “pacification” or “elimination of undesirable elements” are routinely used as euphemisms for imprisonment or murder. “Such phraseology,” Orwell points out, “is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Individuals relying on corporate news media for an understanding of their world are several times removed from the acts carried out in their name. Further, when the perversion of language is combined with a fixation and reliance on technology the ability to recognize and fathom the destruction of human life is all but completely exempted from the socio-communicative equation.

Comedian Lenny Bruce once ended his performances with a poem by activist and philosopher Thomas Merton articulating the extent to which modern technology has intensified the breach between action and conscience.

I was a soldier,
a good soldier.
I saw the end of a conscientious day’s effort.
I saw all the work that I did.
I, Adolf Eichmann,
watched through the portholes.
I saw every Jew burned
and turned into soap.
Do you people think yourselves better
because you burned your enemies
at long distances
with missiles?
Without ever seeing what you’d done to them?
Hiroshima…Auf Wiedersehen…

A half-century later, war is presented as an amusement through the video game portal. As media scholar Robin Andersen observes in A Century of Media, A Century of War,

The age of “stand off weapons” coexists in a culture of media distraction. The new video-game sensibility through which American culture now offers the “experience” of war presents digital thrills disassociated from the killing of real people. Looking through the elevated eyes of the warriors is antithetical to concern for the victims on the ground … When death is presented, it is contextualized in ways that dull the senses, eliminate compassion and avoid accountability.

The photos below appear in “The Year of the Drones – An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011“, published by GlobalResearch on April 30, 2012 . They are accompanied with excerpts from recent Western news media accounts of CIA drone attacks in Pakistan typically published without the aid of such photographic testimony.

“Any backtracking or compromise now could be seen by the American people as being “soft” on terror (a recent Gallup poll showed just 15 percent of Americans now view Pakistan favorably), and provide fodder to Republicans looking for anything to show President Obama’s incompetence. In an election year, it could mean political suicide.”–Business Insider International, April 30, 2012.

“[White House Counter Terrorism official John] Brennan said targets are chosen by weighing whether there is a way to capture the person against how much of a threat the person presents to Americans.”–CBS/AP April 30, 2012.

“The remotely piloted aircraft targeted an abandoned girls’ high school building used by militants in Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan, the officials and witnesses said. Three militants were wounded.”–Yahoo News/Reuters, April 29, 2012.

“On January 30, during an online question-and-answer forum sponsored by Google, Obama acknowledged the use of drones to make targeted killings for the first time.” Al Jazeera, April 29, 2012.

“[White House Counter-Terrorism Chief John] Brennan added: “As a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces, in response to the 9/11 attacks, and we may also use force consistent with our inherent right of national self-defence.” RTE News, April 29, 2012.

“But, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani struck a moderate tone on Monday when he seemed to link the strikes to the continued ability of terrorists fighting the government and international forces in Afghanistan to operate on Pakistan’s territory.” Daily Times of Pakistan, May 1, 2012.

“The remotely piloted aircraft struck an abandoned school building in the densely populated central bazaar of Miram Shah, the capital of the North Waziristan tribal agency, killing three people and wounding two, a government official and a local resident said. The militants were believed to be Punjabi Taliban fighters with the Haqqani network, which carried out a series of attacks in Kabul and two other Afghan cities on April 15. ” –New York Times, April 29, 2012.

“A missile attack by an unmanned US drone aircraft in north-west Pakistan has killed 10 suspected militants, Pakistani security officials say.”–BBC, 8 February, 2012.

“Shamila N. Chaudhary, a former member of the US National Security Council, said that the task will not be easy as America has become impatient with Pakistan following the raid on bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad. “It’s not in the U.S. interest to have a drone program with limits. The administration wants utmost flexibility,” she added”–Asian News International/Yahoo News, 20 March, 2012.

“The attacks are unpopular because many Pakistanis believe they mostly kill civilians, an allegation disputed by the U.S. and independent research. The issue is complicated by the fact that some elements of the Pakistani government, including the military, have helped the U.S. carry out some of the strikes in the past.” –Associated Press/National Public Radio, April 30, 2012.

“Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who is now a foreign policy expert at Washington’s Brookings Institution, said the U.S. administration was also fully aware of Pakistani concerns. “It’s … clear the administration knows the drone war is deeply unpopular in Pakistan and it needs to use them [sic] with greater care,” he said.”–MSNBC/Reuters, April 13, 2012.

References

Andersen, Robin. 2006. A Century of Media, A Century of War. New York: Peter Lang.

Centre for Research on Globalization. 2012. “The Year of the Drones – An Analysis of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004-2011″, 30 April, http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=30603

Lendman, Stephen. 2012. “America’s Drone Command Centers: Remote Warriors Operate Computer Keyboards and Joysticks”, GlobalResearch.ca, 29 April, http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=30590

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language”, in Princeton Readings in Political Thought, Mitchell Cohen and Nicole Fermon (eds.), 591-600. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

© James F. Tracy 2012, Some Rights Reserved.

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