Killing from the Conference Room

Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell in Gavin Hood's Eye in the Sky, 2016

eOne Films/Bleecker Street Media

Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell in Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, 2016

On March 4, the United States used drones and other aircraft to drop precision bombs on Somalia, a country with which we are not at war, reportedly killing about 150 al-Shabab militants who were said to be preparing for an imminent attack on American and African Union forces. The US government asserted that no civilians were killed, although neither that claim nor the allegation of an imminent attack could be verified. What do we really know about how American officials decide to launch such strikes?

In the last two weeks, the Obama administration has announced that it will for the first time make public a redacted version of the Presidential Policy Guidance outlining the standards for targeted killing and will also provide its own estimates of combatant and civilian deaths in drone attacks dating back to 2009. Yet much about these decisions remains opaque. In Eye in the Sky, a remarkably timely and important new film about a fictional drone strike against al-Shabab, South African director Gavin Hood offers a hypothetical window into such decision-making. The picture it paints is deeply disturbing, and raises fundamental questions about when, if ever, such attacks are justified. It may be the closest those of us on the outside ever get to the internal process behind the drone war.    

In the film, Helen Mirren plays Katherine Powell, a steely British colonel charged with tracking terrorists in North Africa. The only travel Powell needs to do, however, is between her home in Surrey and her office in London, where she operates a top-secret drone program, in conjunction with American drone operators in Nevada and African agents in Kenya. As the film opens, Powell wakes to learn that a British woman, who has become a leader of al-Shabab, has been located in Nairobi along with her husband, an American citizen who is also an al-Shabab leader. What follows is a tense minute-by-minute depiction of one of the most daunting ethical and legal decisions a nation’s military and civilian leaders ever have to make—whether to kill a suspected enemy, even if innocent civilians may also die. Without taking sides, the film dramatically illustrates why technology, far from answering such questions, has only made them more difficult.

As Eye in the Sky opens, real-time images from inside a house in Nairobi, provided by a surveillance drone the size and shape of a small beetle, reveal that the British and American suspects, along with other apparent al-Shabab members, are preparing a young man for a suicide mission by outfitting him with an explosive vest and recording his martyr’s video. Powell’s initial plan to use local forces to capture the suspects is foiled, and she quickly requests authority to kill with a drone strike, supported by the video footage suggesting that the targets are about to launch a suicide bombing. Powell doesn’t know where the attack is likely to take place, but experience with al-Shabab suggests that it will be designed to inflict substantial injury on civilians. After an assessment of the risk that civilians could be injured or killed in the requested drone strike, Powell gets the go-ahead. But as the American drone operator is about to pull the trigger, a young girl, about ten years old, shows up to sell bread at a makeshift stand in front of the terrorists’ compound. The drone operator, who has previously spied the young girl playing with a hula hoop in her neighboring yard, balks, and requests a new “collateral damage estimate,” and a new plan, in light of the altered circumstances. 

What follows is a twenty-first-century version of the “trolley problem,” a familiar—if artificial—thought experiment that tests ethical reactions to a life-and-death dilemma. In the classic version of the problem, a runaway train is hurtling down a track on which five people are tied; they will die if the train is not diverted. By pulling a lever, you can switch the train to an alternate track, but doing so will kill one person on that track. Should you pull the switch and be responsible for taking a human life, or do nothing and let five people die? 

In Eye in the Sky, the question is whether to strike the compound, thereby preventing an apparent terrorist attack and potentially saving many lives, though the strike itself might kill the young girl as well as the suspected terrorists. If the operation is delayed to try to avoid endangering the girl, the terrorists may leave the compound, and it may become impossible to prevent the suicide mission. But it’s also possible that the girl will finish selling her bread and leave the danger zone before the suspects depart. If the terrorists leave the compound, an opportunity to capture or kill them without harming others may arise. And of course, the suicide mission itself might fail. As a Danish proverb holds, predictions are hazardous, especially about the future. But a decision must nonetheless be made, and the clock is ticking.


In the real world, these decisions are even more fraught than the film suggests. Thus far, according to the New America Foundation, US forces have killed between three and five thousand people with hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. As far as we know, none of these strikes has involved circumstances as apparently imminent as a would-be terrorist suiting up in his suicide vest. The Obama administration has asserted the authority to kill suspects who it determines pose a “continuing and imminent threat,” with decidedly more emphasis on continuing than imminent. When the US used a drone to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, in September 2011, it did not even assert that he was involved in an ongoing terrorist attack. Awlaki reportedly had been on the terrorist “kill list” for more than a year, suggesting that the administration has a very elongated understanding of “imminence.” 

Francis Chouler as Jack Cleary, Jeremy Northam as Brian Woodale and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson in Hood's Eye in the Sky, 2016

Keith Bernstein/Bleecker Street

Francis Chouler as Jack Cleary, Jeremy Northam as Brian Woodale, and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson in Hood’s Eye in the Sky, 2016

The US is unlikely to have the kind of beetle’s-eye view of what’s going on inside particular buildings that reveals ongoing preparations for a specific terrorist act in Eye in the Sky. And Obama has authorized “signature strikes,” in which the military does not even know the identities of the people it has targeted. Independent reports reveal that many innocents have been killed, in circumstances that bear no marks of a truly imminent attack. In this sense, the film’s depiction may be as removed from real-world drone strikes as the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical is from the CIA’s  torture of al-Qaeda suspects.

Nonetheless, Eye in the Sky provides an illuminating and provocative exploration of the moral challenges this new form of warfare has created. The film is told almost entirely from the standpoint of those who make and carry out the decision to kill: Powell’s small team in a drone operations room in London; two American drone operators in a trailer on a Nevada Air Force base; a group of senior British officials gathered around a laptop in a Whitehall conference room; and even the American secretary of state. The secretary of state makes his decision offhandedly by cell phone in between serves in a ping-pong match in Beijing, but everyone else involved genuinely struggles with it. The debate in the British conference room is especially well done. You cannot help but appreciate both sides of the question. On the one hand, the indications that an attack is imminent are about as extensive as one can imagine, which would ordinarily justify the use of lethal force in self-defense. On the other hand, even with fly-on-the-wall surveillance, there are many unknowns: How long will the terrorists be in the compound, what are their immediate plans, where are they likely to go from here?

And then there’s the girl. She is the paradigmatic innocent bystander, and as we’ve been introduced to her in earlier scenes, we know and like her as a human being. To reduce her to a “collateral damage estimate,” the film strongly implies, is wrong. But isn’t it also wrong, the film simultaneously asks, to risk the deaths of many more innocents? Most viewers will find themselves genuinely whipsawed between the urge to act and the desire to save the girl’s life. How should one weigh the likely death of one innocent civilian against the potential deaths of many more should the terrorists succeed? Does it matter if the chance she will die is 45 percent or 65 percent? Is that even knowable? 

There is no right answer to the “trolley problem.” There are only competing intuitions, based on utilitarian calculations, the difference, or lack thereof, between act and omission, and the like. In Eye in the Sky, and all the more so in the real world, the choices are never as clearly delineated as in the “trolley problem”; decisions must be made in the face of multiple unknowns. The girl may die and the terrorists may get away and kill many more. But what the film makes clear is that, notwithstanding today’s most sophisticated technology, which allows us to see inside a compound in Africa from half a world away, to confirm positive identifications with facial imaging technology, to make joint real-time decision about life and death across several continents, and then to pinpoint a strike to reduce significantly the danger to innocent bystanders, the dilemmas remain. Technology cannot solve the moral and ethical issues; it only casts them into sharper relief. 


Consider, for example, the implications of the purported accuracy of armed drones.  The fact that it is possible to conduct “surgical” strikes and to maintain distance surveillance for extended periods of time increases the moral and legal obligation to avoid killing innocents. When the only way to counter an imminent threat was with more blunt explosives or by sending in ground forces, attacks entailing substantial harm to civilians were nonetheless sometimes warranted. As technology makes it increasingly feasible to strike with precision, risks to civilian lives that were once inescapable can now be avoided. And if they can be avoided, mustn’t they be? Thus, when President Barack Obama in May 2013 announced a standard for targeted killings away from traditional battlefields, he said he would authorize such strikes only when there was a “near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured—the highest standard we can set.” Precisely because they are so discriminating, drones may demand such a standard. Yet as the film shows, that standard can be very difficult to uphold, even under the best of circumstances.

It is hard to imagine knowing as much about any actual drone strike as we do about the fictional one depicted in Eye in the Sky. In the “war on terror,” much if not most of the data that inform specific decisions whether to kill suspected terrorists will be classified; until now, the Obama administration’s drone program has been conducted almost entirely out of public view. And yet, to be legitimate, the sovereign power to kill must be accountable. And transparency is the sine qua non of accountability. The administration’s belated plan to release its general guidelines for targeted killing and aggregate estimates of civilian deaths is a step in the right direction. But it has yet to subject any of its individual decisions to take a human life to independent oversight or review, and to that extent it continues to engage in unaccountable killing.

How can the need for transparency be squared with the demand for secrecy? When is it justified to kill without hearing or trial? How are the lives of the innocent to be weighed in the balance? To its credit, Eye in the Sky refuses to offer any easy answers. There are none. 

Eye in the Sky is released March 11 in select theaters in the US.

Subscribe or give a gift, The New York Review of Books

Give the gift they’ll open all year.

Save 55% off the regular rate and over 75% off the cover price and receive a free 2024 calendar!