James Bond as a Commentary on Targeted Killing

With the semi-recent release of the 24th James Bond film, Spectre, there have been renewed calls to kill off Bond. Some think that Spectre ought to be the last Bond film while others think his work his obsolete going so far as to say “[e]xcept for the occasional Seal Team Six operation, we send drones after those [enemies that didn’t learn how to code] kind of terrorists; not a lone-wolf alcoholic”.

Ignoring the critiques of racism/sexism that are leveled at Bond, I want to examine a few issues brought up in Cracked’s short video, “Why the World No Longer Needs James Bond”. Among the main points, apart from the quotation above, are that cyber war is the future and classic spy techniques such as those employed by Bond are obsolete in the face of hackers and drones, Bond fights old villains and ignores the geopolitics of today, and is a “bad role model”.

I argue in this short piece, however, that as the world changes, Bond changes as well ignoring the entertainment value of blowing things up, Spectre serves as a critique of the way in which national security is going. It should go without saying that this post may contain spoilers and thus I suggest you don’t read ahead until you’ve seen the film. Until then, here’s Cracked’s video:

Now that you’ve seen the film, I want to talk about a few key points taken from it. The first major major point that the film hammers home again and again is the increasingly digitized world we live in. The film hammers home the point that  “[i]ntelligence agencies have never had it so good” because they have access to a functionally unlimited supply of information that is user provided by means of social media and a freely accessible internet. On a meta level, the film critiques both the expanded role intelligence agencies have grown into and the mindset of “if we watch everyone, then we will be safe”.

On a deeper level, however, the film levels an interesting, albeit brief, critique of the drone operations that Cracked seems to think ought to replace Bonds. In what remains of this post, I would like to explain the critique presented in the film and elaborate on the relationship between human agency and killing, and drone agency and killing. To isolate the point I want to make, here is a short clip from Spectre wherein M confronts C on the issue of autonomous and distant warfare:

As surveillance technology increases and the police state becomes more and more digitized, the act of enforcing the law becomes largely disconnected from what would typically be called “the enforcer”. There is no Judge Dredd pulling the trigger as he stares into your eyes, but rather on the international battlefield, there are drone pilots who, from afar, make distinctions between people which lead to judgments about who ought to be, and ought not to be, killed. Writing in the context of necropolitics, Jamie Allinson says that

The drone’s eye view is a fundamentally biopolitical one, in the sense that it surveys and audits, in their “patterns of life.” Yet the drone is not an instrument of making life live among those it surveys. Its purpose is to destroy bodies, not render them docile. For the drone is not merely a new technology in the everyday sense of a mechanical and electrical assemblage: It is a technology of racial distinction. What else is the drone operator’s screen, or any potential automated target recognition (ATR) system, but a means “to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not” (Mbembe 2003:27)? Circling and swooping above entire territories, the drone defines who is an “object in the battlespace” and who is not, delineating those areas and populations characterized by the “acceptability of putting to death.”

Further, as the targets become distanced from the killer, the mentality towards the act changes. No longer is the act of bombing someone seen as a person-to-person relationship, but rather a distant and fun activity that is designed to take the morality out of killing. Autonmous machines that kill fundamentally change the way warfare works insofar as it changes the topographical landscape of the conflict areas. For Patrick Lichty, this is a Latourian change wherein unique and distinct subjects are transformed into homogeneous and easily classifiable targets.

At the end of the day, cries to shift operations to increasingly unmanned missions is short-sighted and philosophically problematic in the sense that it reconfigures the agency of the act of killing by changing targets from living, breathing people to dots on a screen that can be wiped out from thousands of miles away.

Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.

James Bond: Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas. Q.

Q: 007.

The quip between Q and Bond in Skyfall is more relevant than ever in today’s digitized world.

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