THRESHOLD OF DETECTABILITY

Some drone-fired missiles can drill a hole through the roof before burrowing their way deep into buildings, where their warheads explode. The size of the hole the missile leaves is smaller than the size of a single pixel in the highest resolution to which publicly-available satellite images are degraded. The hole is thus at the “threshold of visibility” and might appear as nothing more than a slight color variation, a single darker pixel perhaps. This has direct implications for the documentation of drone strikes in satellite imagery, which is often as close to the scene as most investigators can get. When the figure dissolves into the ground of the image, it is the conditions—legal, political, technical—that degrade the image, or that keep it at a lower resolution that become the relevant material for forensic investigations.

A hole is not simply an absence. It is more, not less, information than the matter that surrounds it, be that reinforced concrete or ozone-rich atmosphere. This is because a hole is information both with regard to the materiality it perforates (concrete/ozone) and to the shape of its absence.

Pixels

Rather than the pixelation of publicly-available satellite images being the result of visual or optical constraints, these images are degraded by legal regulations and directives. The resolution of 50 cm/pixel (in which the size of a pixel is half a meter by half a meter) has been established be- cause this is the frame within which the human body fits when seen from above. The size of the pixel masks the body and makes it disappear into the urban and territorial background. This is a useful resolution for satellite image providers because they can avoid the risk of privacy infringement lawsuits when recording people on private rooftops or terraces, for example. But important details of strategic sites are also camouflaged in this resolution, as are the consequences of violence and violations.

The roof of this building in Miranshah, Pakistan has been hit by a US drone-fired missile, but the entry hole of the missile is masked in the photograph’s pixelation. DigitalGlobe, Inc., March 31, 2012.

The roof of this building in Miranshah, Pakistan has been hit by a US drone-fired missile, but the entry hole of the missile is masked in the photograph’s pixelation. DigitalGlobe, Inc., March 31, 2012.

DigitalGlobe, Inc., March 31, 2012.

DigitalGlobe, Inc., March 31, 2012.

Drones

Targeted assassinations have reintroduced the problem of figuration in warfare. Identifying the human body is the very purpose of the optics on board a drone as it aims at singling out individuals for assassination. This is precisely the opposite of what publicly-available satellite images do when they obscure the individual through reduced resolution. The drone strikes are thus executed at a significantly higher resolution than the one at which the damage they create can be captured when likewise viewed from above. This turns on its head one of the foundational principles of forensics, namely that the criminal investigator should be able to see more, using better optics or in better resolution, than the perpetrators of the crime. This particular inversion is derived from a more fundamental one, for usually it is state agencies that investigate individuals or criminal organizations, and can thus bring better instruments to bear on the traces left behind than those used in the act. In this case however, it is state agencies that do the killings and independent organizations that do the forensics. The differential in knowledge, embodied in the gap between the resolution in which attacks are undertaken and the resolution in which they can be investigated, opens the space for denial. This denial necessitate a “return to the witness.”

But returning to the witness after the “forensic turn” is a matter of entangling the human voice with prosthetic technologies of reconstruction and memory enhancement.

Still from Rachel Maddow, “Victims of secretive US drone strikes gain voice in Pakistani lawyer,” MSNBC, June 29, 2012.

Still from Rachel Maddow, “Victims of secretive US drone strikes gain voice in Pakistani lawyer,” MSNBC, June 29, 2012.

Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International, 2009.

Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International, 2009.


The two above images were taken by munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith on the roof of the Salha family’s home in Beit Lahiya, Gaza on February 1, 2009, less than a month after the end of the Israeli Operation Cast Lead attack. It shows the entry hole from the charge of a drone missile that was shot at the house as a “warning,” but went through the roof into the rooms below. Three minutes later a large bomb was dropped on the house killing six members of the family. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International, 2009.

The two above images were taken by munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith on the roof of the Salha family’s home in Beit Lahiya, Gaza on February 1, 2009, less than a month after the end of the Israeli Operation Cast Lead attack. It shows the entry hole from the charge of a drone missile that was shot at the house as a “warning,” but went through the roof into the rooms below. Three minutes later a large bomb was dropped on the house killing six members of the family. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International, 2009.


Chris Cobb-Smith took this picture standing on the ground floor of the Salha family home after the strike. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith/ Amnesty International, 2009.

Chris Cobb-Smith took this picture standing on the ground floor of the Salha family home after the strike. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith/
Amnesty International, 2009.

A man is seen through a hole made in his roof by a US drone strike in Damadola, Bajaur region, Pakistan, on January 13, 2006. Photo: © Tariq Mahmood / AFP / Getty.

A man is seen through a hole made in his roof by a US drone strike in Damadola, Bajaur region, Pakistan, on January 13, 2006. Photo: © Tariq Mahmood / AFP / Getty.

Home hit by a shell. This attack killed one man, injuring two others. Tuffah, northern Gaza. Photo: © Kent Klich, 2009.

Home hit by a shell. This attack killed one man, injuring two others. Tuffah, northern Gaza. Photo: © Kent Klich, 2009.

Khuzaa, southeastern Gaza. Photo: © Kent Klich, 2009.

Khuzaa, southeastern Gaza. Photo: © Kent Klich, 2009.

 

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