ON DRONES by the Center for Tactical Magic (from Arthur 35)

Originally published in Arthur 35

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Column: Applied Magic(k)
Author: The Center for Tactical Magic
Title: “The Deception of Robot Demons”
Illustration: Aaron Gach

Seldom used in stage magic today, automata (self-operating mechanical figures) featured prominently among conjuror’s acts before the 1900’s. Skillful craftsmen offered public demonstrations of elaborate clockwork characters that could perform entertaining miracles. Perhaps the most famous automaton of all time was the chess-playing spectacle known as The Turk. From the late 1700’s through the mid-1800’s, the turban-topped, robe-wearing, moustachioed machine amazed audiences in Europe and the Americas as he defeated the majority of his opponents, including Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Despite an intense amount of public speculation and scrutiny, the mystery of its inner workings remained a closely guarded secret for many years. Although some correctly suspected that The Turk was in fact a mechanical illusion that concealed a human chess master, these theories were particularly difficult to prove since The Turk was opened up at the beginning of performances to provide the audience with a view of its interior.

In crafting illusions, it is essential for magicians to deflect suspicion by guiding audience perception. This may occur through misdirection, camouflage, patter—or, in the case of The Turk—a combination of all three presented through a carefully orchestrated sequence of events that gives a false appearance of reality. The final effect in this case was an amusing battle of wits apparently between man and machine that was way ahead of its time. Resonating with some of the earliest fears and hopes of the posthuman condition, it predated Mary Shelley’s techno-angst classic, Frankenstein, by nearly 50 years, and IBM’s Deep Thought chess computer (which lost to chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1989) by more than 200 years.

Somewhere between the horror of Frankenstein and the hubris of Deep Thought a melange of other mechanistic mayhem has emerged with far less entertaining implications. Although Nikola Tesla first conjured the notion of a squadron of remotely piloted warplanes in 1915, it has only been in the past decade that drone warfare has moved from from the shadows into the spotlight. In this “theater of conflict,” we find ourselves once again presented with the illusion of intelligent machinations. As with The Turk, we are often presented with a well-choreographed display intended to subvert our logic through partial truths and deceptive patter.

Drone strikes (particularly when they run afoul) are frequently discussed by government spokespersons as if the machines were making their own decisions, with zero accountability for their human operators, strike teams, or the officers and officials who authorize and oversee these missions from an air farce base outside of Las Vegas. When US missiles kill people in countries that we’re not even at war with, should it even matter if the aircraft had a human being sitting in the cockpit?

Unlike in The Turk’s entertaining yet illusory game of chess, the Obama administration hopes the dupes at the table are willing to look beyond any obvious cheats as the last remnants of international credibility are rapidly gambled away. Major news media has recently reported on leaked classified CIA documents indicating that as many as 1 in 4 persons killed in a drone strike were of unknown affiliation—merely suspected of being some sort of potential militant. No wonder a former US Air Force Drone operator, Brandon Bryant, publicly stated in an interview with NBC that he feels haunted by his role in more than 1600 deaths caused by drone attacks.

While assassinations are illegal in international law, the rhetorical sleight of “targeted killings” deftly vanishes culpability. The Pentagon’s targeted killing program relies on the argument that drones are being operated in acts of self-defense (often pre-emptively and far away from the combat zone); therefore, they can kill anyone anywhere if they are deemed a threat. Immediately, a swarm of questions should be buzzing around your brain. Who or what determines a “threat”? How are evidence and suspicion weighed in determining drone strikes? What about the sovereignty of individual nations? Doesn’t this potentially turn the entire world into a combat zone? Is there any accountability when drone strikes go awry? How long will it be before others apply the same logic and justifications to perform their own “targeted killings”?

You don’t need a crystal ball or ESP to see where these policies are leading. In the history of warfare, there has never been a weapon, tactic, or strategy that has remained the sole dominion of only one fighting force. Militaries consistently adopt and adapt the strengths of their foes. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the international legality of armed drones was a question hotly debated by politicians, military lawyers and commanding generals. A dozen years later, drone programs have escalated in ten other countries, including Israel, Turkey, Iran, and India, in addition to the major military powers. Of course, if drone technology follows the proven path of other military tech, it will rapidly trickle down to non-military government agencies, law enforcement, private corporations, organizations, and, eventually, individuals—all of whom will, ahem, undoubtedly use this power responsibly.

With an estimated 30,000 drones and $100 billion industry by 2020, what sort of misdirection can we expect from the corresponding drone lobby? While techlust and powermania has encouraged cop shops across the land to rush out and blow taxpayer dollars on their own drones, several states and municipalities have begun passing laws limiting drone use. One might expect such ordinances to come from Berkeley, Ann Arbor, or Austin; however, these restrictions are actually coming from such “red states” as Idaho, Iowa and Florida. Florida state senator Joe Negron summed up this apparent paradox: “It’s fine to kill terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan with drones, but I don’t think we should use them to monitor the activities of law-abiding Floridians.”

As hawkish conservatives and paranoid Tea-partiers fight to maintain their double-standards, many Democrats and liberals still cling tenuously to their hope-laced delusions that Obama’s war record is not as atrocious as Bush’s. Apologists insist that targeted killings and military assassinations are nothing new. Indeed, Sun-tzu (500 BC) wrote in support of them in his Art of War. Others claim that this is just the next step in the sequence: rock, spear, arrow, catapult, missile, drone. If we are content with archaic oversimplifications of social behavior, we might be satisfied with this analysis and end here. But we are not. Beyond the immediate physical impacts of drone warfare on war, international
diplomacy and people’s lives, there are also longer lasting metaphysical implications. Like magic(k), technology can be a mirror that shows the best and the worst of those who use it.

If we close our eyes and think of wizards, we might imagine a bearded old geezer in exotic robes standing on the castle ramparts overlooking a raging battlefield below. As he mumbles some magic words, a fireball leaps from his outstretched palm, blazes across the darkened sky, and strikes some unsuspecting knight off his steed. Indeed, this is the sort of sorcerer often summoned in the tomes of J.R.R. Tolkien, Dungeons & Dragons, and Hollywood cheese. Although we might be hard-pressed to find historical evidence proving that such feats of magic were ever performed, we can certainly locate a few contemporary counterparts.

Theatrical magicians frequently employ flash paper, flame-throwing wands, and various other fulminating gimmicks to replicate the wizard’s fireball. But perhaps a more accurate version plays out in military operations. Today, we don’t find the battle being fought from the castle tower. Instead, we have to look in an underground bunker where we find a stern figure wearing a strange uniform ornamented with pins, medallions, and cryptic insignia. He peers not into a crystal ball, but rather into a liquid crystal display (LCD) screen. And then he utters only one word—“Fire!”—whereupon another uniformed minion presses a button. At that precise moment, thousands of miles away, a hellfire missile screams across the heavens, and comes crashing down in a fiery blast in a far off land on another continent.

To an audience of 12 year-old boys, this fusion of a wizard’s fireball combined with his crystal ball will undoubtedly serve as a wonderful recruitment tool. However, more discerning adults should be less enamored by a wizard’s balls. Nor should we be satisfied with simply mapping a corollary between the magical tech of anachronistic fantasy worlds and the real technologies of our wartime present. After all, there’s much more at stake here.

In Western Mystery Traditions, magic(k) is oft described as the quest to become godlike. Believers in the White/Black dichotomy of magic frequently make distinctions between their respective divine aspirations. While some seek the power to heal, to nurture, or connect to some non-local sense of cosmic divinity, others grasp for the power to dominate, pass judgment, and administer punishment. In both cases, the characteristics of omniscience (all-knowing) and omnipotence (all-powerful) are at the top of the list.

Edward Snowden’s exposure of the NSA’s massive cyberspying program, PRISM, has made it abundantly clear that for the US Government intelligence community, the unambiguous goal is omniscience, or “Total Information Awareness,” in their native tongue. And, if blunt language or classified documents don’t say enough, a picture speaks plenty. The decision of the Information Awareness Office to use a logo depicting the so-called “eye of providence” glaring down upon the globe speaks volumes. But, the level of unease provoked by such symbolism pales in comparison to the insignias used by the military’s drone operating units, which have exalted the images of demons and the four horseman of the apocalypse.

In his editorial notes on the translation of the Goetia—a grimoire believed to be written by Solomon the King but most likely penned in the 17th Century—the famed occultist, Aleister Crowley, elucidated the 5 main categories of favors that an invoked demon can bestow upon its host: 1) obtain knowledge; 2) destroy enemies; 3) understand the voices of nature; 4) obtain treasure; and 5) heal sickness, diseases and ailments.

Drones are certainly giving demons a run for their money in the first two departments. And, it could certainly be argued that #4 comprises much if not all of the motivation for two wars in oil-bearing regions of the world. But if the national response (or lack thereof) to the enormous threats posed by global climate change (sea level rise, droughts, floods, hurricanes, and the like) is any indication, our so-called leaders have yet to invoke any demons from the third category. Lastly, the interest in the fifth area of healing seems to be of interest only inasmuch as it pertains to #4; however, we can expect they’ll find a way to further rationalize domestic drone use through its yet-to-be-realized healing potential. Already we’ve seen advocates of domestic drone deployment proclaim the potential of drones to fight fires, aid in search & rescue, monitor environmental changes, and report on traffic conditions.

Just as we are mistaken to assume that drones are merely automata without concealed human operators, we would be foolish to assume that technologies are any more neutral than your average demon. The classic Faustian bind in magic(k) is the cautionary tale of sacrificing one’s soul in exchange for temporary benefits. By releasing forces that cannot be adequately controlled, we not only suffer the loss of moral integrity but we risk being possessed by the demons we invoked in the first place. Fortunately, demons can be banished as well as invoked.

When the public glimpsed the internal gears of The Turk they saw exactly what they expected to see: a well-oiled machine. The reality was nothing of the sort. With their perceptions properly managed, the concealed operator could maneuver in the shadows to produce the mystifying spectacle. Knights and rooks would slide across the chessboard as pawns were taken one after another. Superstitious onlookers remarked that the machine was surely possessed by evil forces. How silly to think that evil forces would waste their time playing chess. A global state of war, on the other hand, is hardly a game.


Since 2000, the Center for Tactical Magic has engaged in extensive research, development, and deployment of all types of magic towards positive social transformation. Although often accused of being artists, activists, and anarcho-occultists, the CTM insists that they’re actually rubber and you are glue.

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