One-eyed in the sky

The recently released film “Eye in the sky” is a powerful drama. It also is a testament to the double standards at the heart of Western anti-terrorism strategy.


In “Eye in the sky,” British military intelligence has identified terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. The British in this case are cooperating with US and Kenyan forces. The terrorists are tracked to a particular house.

The film shows amazing surveillance capacities in action, including a high-altitude drone (the eye in the sky) whose camera provides real-time pictures of movie-theatre clarity and precision. However, to get inside the house where the terrorists are thought to be ensconced, a local operative uses a “bug”: a mechanical insect, a miniature drone if you like, that can be piloted to fly into the house and provide a continuous camera view, beamed to decision-makers in Britain and the US.


The core of the plot revolves around a moral dilemma, namely a choice between two options, each with pluses and minuses that are not easily compared. Option 1 is to fire a missile  from the high-altitude drone to kill the terrorists. The main drawback is the possibility of civilian casualties and associated political blowback. Option 2 is not to fire a missile.

To personalise the dilemma, and make it more compelling for Western viewers, several of the terrorists are British or US citizens, while as viewers of the film we see a young girl selling bread near the targeted house. The decision about whether to attack is delayed by the need to obtain formal permission, a process involving British and US commanders, legal advisers, politicians and collateral damage assessors.

The film serves as an illustration of dilemmas long discussed by philosophers about causing death and saving lives. Is it justified to knowingly kill an innocent person in order to (possibly) save the lives of others?


The film also falls into the category of the ticking time bomb scenario much beloved by apologists for torture. Is it justified to torture a suspect to gain information to stop a bomb going off that would kill large numbers of people? Setting aside the questionable assumption that torture is actually useful for obtaining information — critics, including FBI experts, say it is not — this is another moral dilemma: should a prohibition against torture override the urgent need to save lives?


In “Eye in the sky,” the dilemma is made more acute by the information, obtained through the bug inside the house, that the terrorists are preparing for suicide bombings. Should the house be targeted immediately, with the likelihood of civilian casualties, or the attack postponed, with the risk of much higher civilian casualties in coming minutes from suicide bombings in crowded areas?

There is another dilemma portrayed, intertwined with the other dilemmas. If the attack proceeds and leads to civilian deaths, and information about these deaths becomes public, British politicians will have to answer to the media and the public. As stated by a character in the film, if the suicide bombers cause a massacre, the terrorists will be blamed, but if civilians are killed by a strike against the terrorists, British politicians will be blamed.


Invisible dilemmas

“Eye in the sky” is a powerful piece of filmmaking, lauded by critics for its drama and acting. It draws the viewer into the moral dilemmas portrayed, with different perspectives conveyed via different characters, and indeed within a few of the characters who are anguished by the choices before them. Yet the film is also based on a number of assumptions that hide deeper, unmentioned dilemmas at the heart of Western anti-terrorism strategy.

The film is entirely from a Western military and political point of view (supplemented by perspectives from Kenyan allies). As viewers, we do not see the world from the perspectives of the terrorists.

Personally, I totally oppose the methods used by suicide bombers and other non-state terrorists. Not only do they involve killing people for political purposes, but they are often counterproductive, legitimating the violence used against any challenge to authorities.

Nevertheless, it is possible to ask, what right do Western governments have to serve as judges and executioners? The targets of Hellfire missiles may have committed crimes, but they have not been brought before a court of law and convicted. Instead, in the film, viewers are positioned to see assassination as a reasonable policy, as long as collateral damage is limited.

Extra-judicial killing of alleged terrorists and bystanders plays a large role in angering people in targeted populations and enabling extremist groups to recruit new members. Drone assassinations thus feed the very problem they are supposed to be countering. They are part of a cycle of perpetual war, of never-ending strike and counter-strike, in which killers on each side are their opponents’ best allies in maintaining the incentive to use violence.


The assumption that assassination via drones is acceptable is pervasive in Western media. This assumption can be highlighted by alternative scenarios that almost certainly will never occur in real life.

Scenario. A group of health activists has access to far-reaching surveillance capabilities. They have been observing plans to develop a drug; company scientists know it is ineffective and likely to kill thousands of patients, but managers are proceeding because of the promise of billions of dollars in sales. The health activists have access to a bug that can fire a poison dart, killing the company president and thwarting the launch of the drug. Should they proceed?

Absurd? Of course. But the dilemmas involved are quite similar to the “Eye in the sky” scenario.

Other scenarios with similar dynamics can be imagined. An arms exporter is about to seal a deal that will see deadly weapons sold to a ruthless and aggressive ruler. A political leader is about to approve a massive invasion of a foreign country. A company is on the verge of gaining approval for a development that will have disastrous environmental effects. And so on.

Such scenarios are unlikely because most of today’s activists realise that assassination, however well justified, is likely to be counterproductive. For both ethical and pragmatic reasons, they pursue their objectives in more peaceful ways.

Omitted options

“Eye in the sky” highlights dilemmas in the military option against terrorism, and thereby sidelines other anti-terrorism approaches. Terrorism can be challenged by promoting social justice, by involving citizens in gathering intelligence, by getting the media to reduce its attention to terrorism, and by promoting methods of nonviolent action that are far more effective than terrorism. These alternatives — especially the promotion of social justice using nonviolent action — are invisible in the film, as they are in nearly all media treatments.


The film actually portrays quite well what has been called “state terrorism“, the use of violence by governments that strikes terror into populations. State terrorism causes far more death and destruction than the non-state variety, yet because media and education present the world from the point of view of the state and its operatives, state terrorism as a concept is virtually unknown outside of a few scholarly and activist circles.

We can wait in hope, but probably in vain, for big-screen portrayals of nonviolent campaigns, using grassroots collection of information to challenge western state crime. There may be a script for “The eye of the people” but don’t hold your breath for the feature film.

Brian Martin

Thanks to Jørgen Johansen, Majken Sørensen and Steve Wright for useful comments.