“It’s like Call of Duty”

The Defense Department has a secret state-of-the-art control center in Dubai with an IMAX-size screen at the front of the main room that can project video feed from dozens of drones at once. The Air Force has been directed to maintain capability for 65 simultaneous Combat Air Patrols. Each of these involves multiple drones, and maintains a persistent eye over a potential target. The Dubai center, according to someone who has seen it, resembles a control center at NASA, with hundreds of pilots and analysts arrayed in rows before monitors.

This is a long way from the first known drone strike, on November 4, 2002, when a Hellfire missile launched from a Predator over Yemen blew up a car carrying Abu Ali al-Harithi, one of the al-Qaeda leaders responsible for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Killed along with him in the car were five others, including an American citizen, Kamal Derwish, who was suspected of leading a terrorist cell based near Buffalo, New York. The drone used that day had only recently been reconfigured as a weapon. During testing, its designers had worried that the missile’s backblast would shatter the lightweight craft. It didn’t. Since that day, drones have killed thousands of people.

John Yoo, the law professor who got caught up in tremendous controversy as a legal counselor to President George W. Bush over harsh interrogation practices, was surprised that drone strikes have provoked so little hand-wringing.

“I would think if you are a civil libertarian, you ought to be much more upset about the drone than Guantánamo and interrogations,” he told me when I interviewed him recently. “Because I think the ultimate deprivation of liberty would be the government taking away someone’s life. But with drone killings, you do not see anything, not as a member of the public. You read reports perhaps of people who are killed by drones, but it happens 3,000 miles away and there are no pictures, there are no remains, there is no debris that anyone in the United States ever sees. It’s kind of antiseptic. So it is like a video game; it’s like Call of Duty.”

Mark Bowden, “The Killing Machines

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