(Image via notabugsplat.com)
Earlier today, many publications, including VICE News, started reporting on a large art display in northern Pakistan. Photos depict an open field or a rural farm on which a giant portrait of a young girl has been unravelled. It's part of a project called #NotABugSplat.
Saks Afridi, the online PR rep for the project, says "for now, we're an artist collective from Pakistan, USA and France". He won't divulge precisely who else is involved for the time being. The French component, however, is reported to have been JR, who you may know from his sweet, humanity-affirming art, or his downright saccharine TED Talk.
As The Verge observed, #NotABugSplat is meant to show people coming together to say, "We exist." In short, it's like Banksy meets Kony 2012: straight-up, uncut internet heroin.
The idea is that when you're looking down from a Predator drone's point of view, seeing a child's face would be a startling change from the usual Google Earth view I think we all assume they're looking at. The pilot seated at the remote terminal would, I suppose, then be so stirred with empathy that he or she would be forced to stand up and quit the drone programme once and for all. If that's overly optimistic, maybe the pilot is just meant to be too distracted to properly target the toddler he or she was planning to shoot, or at least compelled to try extra, extra hard not to shoot toddlers this time.
The reality is that this isn't meant for drone pilots at all. It's meant for us, internet. Afridi told me in an email that the piece was "laid out in KPK province about two weeks ago into the field by village locals", but it's almost certainly not there any more.
"The piece was left there [until the villagers] decided to use the fabric for roofing and other useful purposes," Afridi wrote. It was – and this is not a criticism at all – printed on material the villagers needed anyway. "The art was always meant to be utilised and not discarded after it was photographed," he continued.
Even while it sat there in that field, it probably wasn't dissuading many pilots patrolling Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the art display was set up. As we reported over at VICE News, drone expert Jack Serle told us that drones usually target other areas in Pakistan, such as north and south Waziristan, places where there isn't enough access for outsiders to easily pull off something like this. Drone strikes tragically do occur in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the girl in the photo is reported to have been orphaned by drone strikes, but since most of the action is hundreds of miles away, this was more of a symbolic gesture than a real attempt to persuade anyone.
Then there's the whole business of supposedly calling drone kills "bug splats", which is inaccurate. The unfortunate term does get used, but it's a way to describe the rough target perimeter of a strike and was actually conceived as a way of critiquing the inaccuracy of attacks from such a distance. Notabugsplat.com begins its description by saying, "Predator drone operators often refer to kills as ‘bug splats’, since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed." Which isn't true.
Far be it for me to tamp down our collective moral outrage over the use of Predator drones, but I also hope we won't turn the military personnel who work as drone pilots into bogeymen. Granted, drones are a weapon that takes the attacker even further out of harm's way than if he or she was using a rifle and, before that, a sword. And even more than rifles, drones do seem to take down a shit ton of civilians.
But the pilots with the joysticks are also people with names and faces. While I'd much rather be the pilot than the villager dodging a rain of bullets, drone pilots aren't just playing Space Invaders. They have to monitor the comings and goings of a place for hours or even days, staring at the people they're eventually going to target as they take smoke breaks and stand around chatting. Nancy Cooke, cognitive science professor at Arizona State University's College of Technology and Innovation, told Livescience.com a few months ago that the emotional drain on drone pilots comes from close monitoring. The Air Force reports that PTSD in drone pilots is one-third the rate seen in those who saw actual combat overseas, but they are still getting PTSD, and it's probably because they aren't psychopaths.
So while we can all feel very proud of ourselves for correctly identifying drone victims as human beings, and while the reminder to pilots that they ought not kill children could help (who knows?), let's still try not to feel too morally superior. The narrative of drone pilots so emotionally dulled and disassociated from humanity that they think of distant dead humans as splattered bugs isn't necessary for this to be a powerful art project.
"We hope to do a dozen more of these installations," Saks wrote. I really hope they pull it off, and I hope it does some good somehow.