EYE IN THE SKY – The American Raids on Al-Shaabab

Sacrificing one life to save one hundred? The irresolvable dilemma for the finiteness of man. This is the grand theme that emerges from EYE IN THE SKY, the last work of Gavin Hood released in Italian cinemas with the title Il diritto di uccidere (The Right to Kill).

The question is not of minor importance as the title in the Italian version underlines. However, the attention and the meaning of the film is on the ethical choice and the political, military and moral legitimacy of sacrificing an innocent life to save many more.

The rules regarding the use of drones are clear. Their use is ancillary to the impossibility of capturing a target and the certainty, almost one hundred percent, of there not being any civilian casualties. It is the ‘almost’ where the devil comes into play.

The plot of EYE IN THE SKY unfolds, clearly and effectively, around this dilemma. On the opportunity of carrying out operations of this type. This is the decision that a couple of generals and some bigwigs, very big, of the political world must take (and will take).

We are in Kenya. No, actually, we are in 3 different countries – theUnited States, Great Britain and Kenya where the military, politicians and bureaucrats participate, by means of a monitor, in carrying out a highly delicate mission. To uncover and capture the most dangerous exponents of Al-Shaabab, one of the main Islamic terrorist organizations in Africa.

War 3.0. Everything is done by remote control.

The base where the drone leaves from is in Nevada (Gavin Hood himself controls it in the shoes of Colonel Walsh). Instead, at Pearl Harbor there is American Intelligence. In the field, in the flesh, a Somalian, Farah (the famous Barkhad Abdi), in the service of the Americans.

«We have numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the authorized list from the President. We have to move», orders Commander Powell (Helen Mirren) who coordinates the operation from the English base.

The list is the famous ‘kill list’, the list of terrorists to be hit, periodically approved by the President of the United States and proposed by the National Security Council.

Numbers 2 and 3 of this list, the most important targets of the mission, are a couple British citizens converted to Islam and, especially, to the bloody terrorism of Al-Shaabab.

Let’s have a closer look at al Shabab. In Arabic, it means youth.

The group is extremely able to take action and affiliate with other groups (al Qaeda, Isis). Its attacks include the massacre at the University of Garissa last year (where 148 Christian students were brutally murdered) and the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, in 2013.

The operative arm of the Islamic Courts Union, the group had taken over the control of most of the country from the “Warlords”, (including Mogadishu) and imposed the Sharia, until the military intervention of Ethiopia in 2006. Al-Shaabab took up the legacy, radicalizing it. At the beginning, the group won over the support of a good part of the population by presenting themselves as the liberator of Somalia from the Ethiopian troops and as the guardian of the Islamic identity of the Somalian people.

However, this image was soon to be dispelled. Al-Shaabab became a terrorist movement, affiliated with al-Qaeda, using bloody means (even more extreme than al Qaeda), adopting a purist interpretation of the Sharia which distanced many of its sympathizers. It was forbidden to smoke, listen to music, watch TV. All practices detrimental to the Islamic religion according to Wahhabism. Somalis are mainly Sunni and Sufi (more tolerant of the Salafi Wahhabites).

Marginalized in Somalia by the AMISOM mission (the military forces of the African Union in Somalia) and decimated by American drone raids, Al-Shaabab shifted to Kenya. Here, besides being in a nearby country, they were able to play on the country’s inept government, the corruption (led by the secret services), the nepotism, radicalization, as well as the increasing marginalization of the Muslim community (10% of the population). From 2012, hundreds of Muslim Kenyans have been recruited by Al-Shaabab to carry out suicide missions against the Christian population.

Therefore, we can understand why capturing numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 of al Shabab is no small thing.

Then, if Ms Hallen (the obsession of Colonel Powell) is in the middle, nothing can jeopardize the mission. Neither the nationality of the targets (two English and one American) nor the presence, near the hideout to be hit, of a child, Aisha, who sells bread in the zone under the military control of al Shabab.

If the first obstacle can be solved easily, because, according to the American Secretary of State, inconvenienced by the call while in China involved in his” ping pong diplomacy” (literally), «the terrorists have lost the right to be American citizens, they are enemies of the United States», the dilemma of the girl is, instead, much more complicated.

«This changes things.»  (General Benson)

The initial mission was to capture, not kill. Then it changed to kill. At any cost. Even at the cost of Aisha’s life. Because the images taken by Ringo, the likeable remote-controlled bug, that flutters over the lair of al Shabab leave no doubt nor any room for hesitation. The rules of engagement must change as the men of al Shabab are tying explosives onto their bodies, a lot of explosives, ready to carry out a kamikaze attack “in the name” of Allah.

«This changes things.»

Yes. Another complication added to the presence of the girl, always there, with her table selling bread.

«We have been hunting down Hallen for six years. We cannot let her leave the house.» (Commander Powell)

In the War Room in London, where the heads of the English Cabinet are gathered, it is much less simple.

«Can we kill English citizens in an allied country not at war?»

«Can we authorize a mission with a possibility of 65% collateral damage?»

There is no time, very little time to decide. The drone only requires 50 seconds to reach and hit the target.

Political, military and moral factors are inextricably tied up together.

«What’s the situation with the girl?» (Commander Powell)

«65% possibility to be killed.» (Sergeant Mushtaq)

«We have to do it.» (Commander Powell)

«Dozens of other children will be in danger if we don’t hit now, if we lose our targets … ready to attack again.»  (Commander Powell)

The Americans push for action. The English hesitate. Not because they are any better. But only because they are more worried about public opinion reaction.

«If Al-Shaabab is able to kill 80 people in a shopping mall, the world will be on our side, but if we kill a young girl they will have won.»

The soldiers, Benson and Powell, are ready to go. For them, the politicians and bureaucrats are wasting time, more worried about passing on the buck (extremely heavy given the decision to be made) than about saving human lives.

«Never tell a soldier that he doesn’t know how inhuman a war can be.» (General Benson)

Finally, the percentage estimated for the “collateral damage”, namely the possibility that the girl will be seriously hurt (or killed!) by the drone’s missile, has decreased.

«… less than 50%…if we aim at this point, deeper inside the house. They are estimates, Commander, only estimates, even if we change the direction of the drone.» (Sergeant Mushtaq)

«Of course, they are estimates. You have done everything possible to save the child and this exonerates you from any responsibility lieutenant. In the report, I’ll write estimated collateral damage less than 50%.» (Commander Powell)

In Nevada, there is the base from where the drones leave. There, within the compound in the middle of the desert, the most moving moments of the film occur. Between the main pilot, Colonel Watts and another pilot, Carrie Gershon, a young woman.

Completely cut off from the rooms of political and military power. They need only to move the joystick.

«When did you join up?” (Gershon)

«I had a lot of debts at university. Flying guaranteed me a job.» (Lieutenant Watts)

Farah, the Somalian agent, desperately tries to save the girl. Amir, the boy he asked to buy all of Aisha’s bread, runs, runs like the wind, but it’s not enough. Fifty seconds are too few for the girl to fold up her table and head towards home. Hit, and then hit again by a second Hellfire missile, because Hawaii Intelligence tells us that Hallen is in a bad way, but is still not dead. Even from the child’s body the monitor shows feeble but unequivocal signs of life. The second missile and the last breath of Aisha lying in the arms of her young father. He who had made a beautiful hula hoop for his beautiful little girl, who called her his treasure and warned her about those fanatics out there … don’t let them see you, playing is forbidden….

We leave the cinema certain about two things.

Drones kill or injure innocent victims. Even Obama had admitted it, that he had made drones the main operative instrument of his “doctrine”.

Gavin Hood’s film invites us to think. Despite ourselves. This is his great virtue, besides having known how to present, uncritically and skillfully, all the positions of the decision-makers, in all their potential legitimacy.

Inevitably, once the film is over, we will give our opinion on what was the right thing to do and what was the wrong. We will surely be inclined to take a position from a moral standpoint. But which? Are we sure that we know what we would have done in their position, in the case of each of the characters? What would have been our moral choice?

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