Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Eye in the Sky


There is a thought experiment in ethics studies known as the “Trolley Problem.” It is simply this: There is a runaway trolley, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Directly ahead of the trolley five people are tied to the tracks and will be killed when the trolley gets there. But there is a siding. If you throw the switch, the trolley will be diverted … but there is one man tied to the tracks on that siding. Question: Do you throw the switch?

It’s a tricky one. If you do nothing, five people will die … but you didn’t kill them, other than by your inaction. If you throw the switch you are completely responsible for that death; you’re a murderer. There are variations. What if the one person is someone you care deeply about? What if he is someone you hate? There are many more. Myself, I feel I would throw the switch in the first, neutral instance, but not if it was my wife or child. Yeah, I’d be making a selfish value judgement, but I think it would be easier for me to live with than the alternative. So sue me. As I’m sure the relatives of those five dead people would do.

This movie is about that sort of situation, and about the moral choices brought up by the new kind of long-distance killing. There is a Predator drone flying over Nairobi. Then there are several locations, connected with each other only by cables and satellites:

Helen Mirren is a hard-line Colonel in a secret location in London.

Alan Rickman (in one of his last roles, alas) is in a meeting room with a general, the Attorney General, and some politicians.

An undercover agent, Jama Farah, on the ground in Kenya, the only person in any physical danger.

A person operating high-tech facial recognition software, at Pearl Harbor.

The unfortunate gnomes in a trailer in Las Vegas, one to pilot the drone, the other to operate the laser guidance system for the two Hellfire missiles it carries.

They have located three of the top tier of Al-Shabaab, a real group of sub-human Muslim terrorists who have killed hundreds of people in Kenya. Mirren has been tracking one of them, a British national named Susan Danford, for six years, and is salivating at the chance to kill her. The other two are American citizens. Legal dilemma: can a British-American force kill their own nationals on foreign soil? Three murderous motherfuckers who they could legally shoot on sight if they encountered them on the ground?

And it gets really high tech. They are observing using not only the camera in the Predator, but a tiny flying machine the size of a bird (it is even made to look like a bird) and an even more amazing flying camera platform the size and shape of a medium-sized beetle. So they can fly the little bug right into the house, where they see the jihadis putting suicide vests on two faithful morons who want to meet Allah. To bring the level of tension even higher, there is a little girl selling bread just outside the house, certain to be killed if they blow the place up.

So the deepest moral question (among many others) is this: Do you blow up the house and the bombers, knowing you will kill the little girl? Or do you do nothing, knowing those suicide cretins will kill an estimated eighty people within a few hours? And you don’t have a lot of time to make the decision.

I don’t think there is any right answer. Among those eighty people who will be killed by the suicide bombers is certain to be several children. The bombers don’t give a flying fuck. Do you sentence them to death by doing nothing, to save the life of one child? Do you throw the switch, or do you let the trolley proceed down the track?

It’s so goddam eerie seeing these people in five different locations, none of whom will ever meet, coordinating an attack in a distant land. It’s all about modern warfare, which can now be waged without a single soldier setting foot on the ground. Those two in Vegas operating the drone? The only danger they face is losing all their money at the craps table. It seems so heartless, and so … unfair. But what is fair about war? Since the invention of the airplane it has become possible to rain death on thousands of people, and never see the blood. With a drone, at least you have to look at what you’ve done. (The degree of high resolution of modern drone cameras it stunning. You will definitely see that little girl be blown apart.) Would it be more morally right to have to risk your own life by flying a regular plane and dropping a bomb?

I wish, oh I wish there was no war, but given that there is war and no way I can see to abolish it, it seems to me that the best way to go about it is the one that kills or maims the fewest number of people. I wish, oh how I wish that there was never any “collateral damage” when fighting a war, but there always has been, and until we invent a drone that can fly right into the house where the suicide bombers are hard at work on their evil task, and blow them away individually, there always will be collateral deaths. With the amazing accuracy of drone targeting, right down to a target about a foot across, the deaths of innocents is actually reduced.

Or you could just do nothing to try to stop the terrorists. It’s a tempting thought, keeping the blood off our hands, forswearing ever bringing death out of a clear blue sky again … but what about those eighty Kenyans whose lives you could have saved? If you have the capacity to save those lives, shouldn’t you do it?

Okay, that’s enough of that. From what I’ve read, much of the tech we see in this film is real. Somebody who knows a lot more about it than I do wrote an excellent article about that. The part that is still mostly blue-sky is the beetle camera. People are working on it, but it’s a big problem making a useful battery that tiny. The bird camera is definitely real, I’ve seen video of one in operation. The drone camera stuff is totally real. The guy said that facial recognition software is not as good as what we see here, but everybody believes it soon will be.

One last note, and my only real criticism of the movie. Without revealing the details of what finally happens, I thought the ending was not quite what it should be. We are shown the final outcome of the strike (you didn’t really think for a minute that they would not attack, did you?), and I don’t think that was right. None of the people involved would ever know what happened, who lived and who died, and I think we should have been left in the dark, too. Left in the dark with only our (or, at least, my) deeply conflicted thoughts. Would I throw the switch …?