This essay discusses Eye in the Sky’s elaborate staging of the trolley problem, a famous philsophical thought experiment designed to tease out our criteria for moral judgments. The author argues that the film exposes the trolley problem’s most important – and likely least intended – discovery. Namely, instead of providing moral clarity, the trolley problem shows how ethical judgments become steadily less clear as one comes to know more about a given situation. The author also argues that Eye in the Sky uses this discovery to undermine the broader projects of state surveillance, and the ongoing disaster of the War on Terror.
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An old cliché claims the eyes are the window to the soul. It follows the thread of Matthew 6:22, which dubs the eye “the lamp of the body.” Sickness of spirit reveals itself in the eye, so the reasoning goes, because the same organ that fills the body with light cannot conceal whether the soul within holds darkness. The eye is easily seen through, physically and metaphorically: it’s transparent; it hides nothing. Within this tradition, the eye is not primarily the instrument of inspection, but its object. The parable of the speck in Matthew 7:5 forbids scrutinizing others without first looking at ourselves, lest the imperfections found under the magnifying glass prove to be blemishes in the lens. Therefore, in matters of conscience, the eye occupies unsteady ground. The mechanism by which we perceive doubles as the gauge of our character. As a consequence, the act of looking places one in a state of ethical vulnerability. To gaze in judgment on another is to open the soul’s window, and lay bare its morality – or moral bankruptcy – for all to witness.
In many respects, Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky (2015) is an account of such a gaze: one long look, turned outward and inward, that studies both the judged and their judges. Its true main character is its dramatic engine – not the actors who skulk about its stage, but the surveillance mechanisms built to enhance and outmode the human eye. And like any protagonist, these technologies have their dramatic arc, their tragic flaw. Their failure is that they cannot stand in for Matthew’s lamps. They house no surrogate souls to assume the moral hazard of our fallible efforts to dispense justice; they do not shoulder the weight of the conscience so much as add to its burden. The film slowly unravels the promise and potential of surveillance until its all-seeing eye delivers only moral blindness, rendering intractable the moral quandaries it was designed to simplify.
In purely structural terms, surveillance exists to help the state solve two separate but related problems: gathering information to determine what course of action to pursue, and enforcing compliance with the chosen course. For this latter application, we might blame English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). In Panopticon; or The Inspection-House (1791), Bentham identifies the logistical concern common to all places where “a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection,” such as “perpetual prisons in the room of death, or prisons for confinement before trial, or penitentiary-houses, or houses of correction, or work-houses, or manufactories, or mad-houses, or hospitals, or schools”:
[T]he more constantly the persons to be inspected are under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them, the more perfectly will the purpose of the establishment have been attained. Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually be in that predicament, during every instant of time. This being impossible, the next thing to be wished for is, that, at every instant, seeing reason to believe as much, and not being able to satisfy himself to the contrary, he should conceive himself to be so.
Since these institutions all hinge upon dispensing an authority’s attention for various punitive, correctional, or therapeutic ends, they work best if their wards are being watched – or think they’re being watched – at all times. Observation, after all, introduces the possibility that the observer might intervene. Hence, children do not misbehave under a caretaker’s stern stare for fear of the consequences; recovering patients take their first uncertain steps more willingly if a physical therapist stands ready to stop their fall. Bentham’s insight is that, for good or for ill, the seeing eye is a powerful coercive implement – though Bentham pictured it doing mostly good. In Bentham’s thought, the state is foremost an instrument of compassion, intended to pursue what is good and moral while guiding its citizens to do the same. At its cruelest, he believed the state should make prisons appear terrifying from the outside as a deterrent to future crime; inside, however, he urged hospitality. “[L]et the apparent condition of the delinquent be as miserable,” he writes in The Rationale of Punishment (1830), “and the real as comfortable, as may be.” His surveillance serves similarly benign ends: in his model, constant oversight and its attendant correctives are the tools of just rule and societal betterment. (The drone pilot benediction uttered early in Eye in the Sky – “Do good, don’t suck” – concisely summarizes the Benthamite mindset.) Bentham’s justice isn’t blind. It has 20/20 vision, turned at all times upon innocent and miscreant alike.
The dream of surveillance echoes that of Plato’s philosopher king, the ideal ruler whose word is law and whose edict is unquestionable by virtue of his profound wisdom. He wields absolute power not by means of force, but of logic. As the wisest man alive, his decisions adhere exclusively to what is good and correct, and therefore carry the authority of any moral maxim. His decree must be followed; all who reject evil must obey. The project of surveillance is to bolster the philosopher king’s authority – or, in his absence, to arrogate it. If his dominion comes from knowing all, surveillance seeks that same legitimacy by making all known. By its invasive calculus, information is the most important prerequisite of knowledge and wisdom. Where there is data, there is something to be learned; therefore, it must be gathered in abundance. Surveillance thus assumes that perception is a function of seeing. When everything is within view, the wisest course must also be.
In this light, the film’s title tempts the viewer with that same promise of moral clarity. The phrase “eye in the sky” connotes a god’s-eye view, omniscient and all-knowing, a position of moral certainty attained from sitting at the highest possible vantage. The title reads like a more hopeful formulation of the deus ex machina: if we build the right machine, god – infallible giver of moral instruction – will emerge from it. Yet omniscience is a power most often afforded to gods of punishment. “Vengeance is Mine,” the god of Deuteronomy declares; “I will repay.” And the machine we’ve built in its image – the unmanned drone – flies on wings as tireless as any angel’s, roaming the skies in search of enemies to smite using missiles named after hellfire. What sort of god clambers out of a machine like that?
Perhaps this question explains why Eye in the Sky opens not in medias res but ex machina. The first shot climbs out from an oven – a different species of infernal machine, hellish and framed in fire – into a walled garden, blameless as Eden, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Here we meet a cherubic little girl twirling a hula hoop around her waist while her parents engage in the unobtrusive work of baking bread and repairing bicycles. We’ll soon learn that their stretch of country is under the heel of Al-Shabaab, a violent cell of Islamist militants. Despite the fanaticism and misogyny of their neighbors, the family teaches their daughter mathematics in secret, and allows her the joys of unbridled play behind the protective barriers ringing their yard. They are the portrait of everything an ethical observer would want to protect: an oasis of secularism in a fundamentalist desert; a pocket of honest labor in a bastion of corruption; the heartening future that could sprout from such auspicious soil. But it also won’t be long before we learn the family shares a wall with Al-Shabaab brass, who have convened in the house next door to outfit a suicide bomber for a forthcoming terror attack. And all the while, a watchful drone prowls the skies above, waiting for the signal to fire.
The debate over when – or whether – the drone should strike propels the drama forward. At first, it appears to be a straightforward proposition. A bunch of wanted terrorists, each with dozens of murders to their name, have gathered under one roof with the intent to cause further harm. Ending their lives will likely save many others. Why not bomb them? Yet the moment it seems like the decision is settled, a new political or legal consideration surfaces to derail it. Do the rules of engagement for the mission (an international effort requiring complex diplomacy among the United States, United Kingdom, and Kenya) permit taking lives when the original objective was to capture the targets alive? What level of imminent danger justifies moving from a “capture” to a “kill” scenario? Can the US and UK use lethal force when a number of the terrorists are their own citizens? What international censure would follow from launching fatal airstrikes in a friendly country with whom neither the US nor UK is at war?
And then there are the questions of collateral damage. The film assumes, in true Benthamite fashion, that the intent is to minimize collateral damage and the suffering it induces. But it quickly becomes apparent that there exists no clear picture of what constitutes actual harm reduction. Is it permissible to risk killing a handful of bystanders if it means sparing the victims of the eventual suicide bombing? What if one of those bystanders is the child from the exemplary neighboring family, who has wandered into the airstrike’s blast radius to sell her mother’s bread? Do the assumed deaths and suffering of the yet-to-occur suicide bombing count for more than the certain deaths and suffering of the bystanders? And what of the long game? Perhaps the overall body count will be greater if the airstrike radicalizes additional terrorists, and lesser if a scattering of terrorist attacks turns public opinion against Al-Shabaab. But does that mean who causes a death determines how permissible it is? And now that we are party to all the details of the situation, are we culpable – legally, politically, morally – if we do nothing?
If this dramatic framing sounds familiar, it’s because it mimics a famous philosophical thought experiment known as the trolley problem. In the classic formulation credited to British philosopher Philippa Foot (1920–2010), the trolley problem pins spectators between two unconscionable choices to assess whether the unacceptability of one option makes the other less undesirable by comparison. In “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect” (1967), Foot devises a series of outlandish scenarios to probe these moral reflexes. The most memorable of Foot’s scenarios invites the reader to suppose
he is the driver of a runaway tram which he can only steer from one narrow track on to another; five men are working on one track and one man on the other; anyone on the track he enters is bound to be killed. […] The question is why we should say, without hesitation, that the driver should steer for the less occupied track.…
Foot is interested in determining why compelling an innocent person to die might be deemed acceptable under these circumstances. (“[I]t is one thing to steer toward someone foreseeing that you will kill him,” she muses in the same essay, “and another to aim at his death as part of your plan.”) Suffice it to say, the answers do not come easily. But in the intervening years, Foot’s experiment has iterated through all manner of refinements in search of them. Some invite you to push a fat man off a bridge to stop the oncoming train; others rearrange the track for maximum carnage. It has even spawned a meme mocking the staggering complexity and ludicrous improbability of its most convoluted setups.
Yet the trolley problem’s innumerable permutations – and its punchline afterlife – point toward its true, albeit unintentional, insight. In spirit, the trolley problem is meant to unearth intuited moral laws, such as the criteria by which we judge certain lives to be more or less valuable than others. In practice, it has uncovered something far different: the more clearly you see the field, the more nebulous the course of action. In ethical matters, especially life-or-death decisions where the judgment of worthy or wanting carries irrevocable consequences, information confounds more than it clarifies. What the trolley problem consistently exposes is the ease with which competing moral claims flood and fluster our capacity for reason and action. In modest quantities, they are troubling; in surfeit, paralyzing. Hence the fatal flaw behind the attempt to turn surveillance toward ethical ends: for an observer of conscience, to see more is to know less.
By extension, the mood of the omniscient ethical observer is constant anxiety. A timeworn strain of cinematic thought erroneously conflates seeing with power. It’s likened to voyeurism – the privilege of seeing without being seen, of violating privacy to behold what was never meant for other eyes. Perhaps this power dynamic holds true when the watcher harbors malign intent. But with an ethical actor, the dynamic inverts. For voyeurism conceives of seeing as an action in itself, whereas the ethical draws a distinction between seeing and doing. (So too does Eye in Sky. The charismatic pilot played by Aaron Paul notes early on that, within the two-person drone team, he’s only ever “been the eye” who operates its camera, not the one who controls its armaments.) Witnessing carries obligation. It is one thing not to rescue a drowning person whom one never notices; it is quite another not to intervene after one sees them struggling in the water. Once the veil of ignorance is removed, inaction transforms from accident to choice. After the apparatus of surveillance lifts the veil from all within in its view, every new discovery brings knowledge of what those at its helm could have done, where they could have acted. It thereby imposes a moral burden on all possible courses of action and inaction. For the ethical observer, seeing is therefore not the anarchy of voyeurism, but the constraint of moral responsibility – the awareness that from the moment another person enters one’s field of vision, one is guilty of all the good one does not do. Small wonder, then, that Eye in the Sky’s most common frame composition depicts a figure staring at a video feed, powerless and paralyzed before the impossible decisions it has charged them to make.
As a corrective mechanism, the surveillance system is constructed to bypass its unreliable human parts wherever possible. Its apparatus consists of more than the machinery of inspection. Its other half is the machinery of bureaucracy – the policies designed to remove that indecisive human element, to outsource the work of the conscience to an algorithm that has already done the thinking. Such is the role that law plays in Eye in the Sky, providing a framework of collected wisdom that, in theory, dictates what is permissible under which circumstances. (The law is always the favored stand-in for moral choice in authoritarian aesthetics; it asks not “are we right” but “are we culpable.”) Yet this machinery, too, fails in unexpected ways. Law is fundamentally reactive: it sees the future only in light of past errors, and more often accumulates post hoc justifications for ad hoc applications of power. It cannot accommodate novelty. Eye in the Sky presses on this weakness until the system breaks.
For those situations that are not covered under its many prescriptions and proscriptions, the law in Eye in the Sky cedes command back to the human. “Here are the facts that we cannot reconcile,” it says. “Now what do you decide?” If a decision can’t be reached, the matter can be escalated up the chain of command. (Another authoritarian belief: greater power confers greater understanding.) Each act of Eye in the Sky is spent exhausting a link of the chain. A government functionary is shown the terrorist meeting and the likely civilian casualties, then apprised of the legality of the drone strike. By some mix of conscience and political calculation, the functionary cannot determine how to proceed. Thus the matter ascends the chain of command, where the exact same process repeats anew with a government official of higher rank. The chain reaches its end with the UK Foreign Secretary, who, in a rare moment of visual humor, receives his briefing in a bathroom during a bout of food poisoning. Eye in the Sky doesn’t place its rulers on thrones. Its seat of power is a toilet. Those who occupy it are as fragile, fallible, and full of shit as the rest of us.
To the film’s military figures, the repeated escalation is an exasperating exercise in buck-passing. Alan Rickman’s general seems especially averse to choice. We see him make only one – selecting between two dolls in a toy store, one of which was requested as a birthday present – and the frivolity of the whole process leaves him unimpressed. (“Apparently there’s an important difference,” he deadpans to an aide, after learning he bought the wrong one.) But the least hesitant actors – a pair of US officials who share the UK military’s impatience – cast aspersions on whether decisiveness is a virtue. We’re shown a US Secretary of State who takes all of twelve seconds to approve and justify the drone strike before returning to his interrupted table tennis match with a Chinese entourage; for him, international relations amount to a game. Later, a legal advisor for the US National Security Council dubs the civilian casualties acceptable based on a macabre “points system” whose logic goes unexplained – and would likely prove more horrifying if its metrics were made known. They appear barbaric in their certainty. Yet their role is only advisory; they aren’t the ones who must fire the missile. Their counsel cannot make the act of killing any less monstrous – nor, for that matter, can any degree of legal guidance. “There is no law covering a situation quite like this,” the UK Attorney General despairs at one point, and in so doing, arrives at one of the film’s core insights. The machinery of surveillance does not make ethical decision-making any easier; it only introduces further complexity into a field with no correct responses. It helps you see more, or kill more efficiently. It can gather intelligence and game out possibilities, but in the end, a human being must always decide whether to pull the trigger.
With this in mind, the film’s epigraph takes on a new meaning. Eye in the Sky opens with a quote attributed to the Greek tragedian Aeschylus: “In war, truth is the first casualty.” The initial reading suggests that war is predicated on lies – appropriate for a film whose backdrop is the disastrous War on Terror, and the flagrant untruths of the Bush administration that have killed more than a million in Iraq and the Middle East more widely. But by the film’s conclusion, it becomes apparent that the quote is really about how war reveals the broader indeterminacy – if not the outright absence – of moral truth. In everyday life, where one is virtually never called upon to kill, be killed, or prevent the killing of another, it’s effortless to assume the strength of one’s moral compass. You’re never putting it to the test. It’s only under extreme circumstances that it’s subjected to the force of scrutiny (or the scrutiny of force). And how quickly it breaks. The act of killing has a way of exposing the brittleness of our ethical suppositions. We say we must minimize harm and save the greatest number. Therefore we might console ourselves that killing the little girl to save hundreds of other lives is justifiable. But her brief return in the credits – twirling her hula hoop, channeling for an instant all the promise and potential that might have been – chastises us for believing we could ever calculate the value of her unlived life. We might think it a moral imperative to kill those who would go on to murder others. But the drone pilots at the film’s end stagger into the daylight like an army defeated, introducing doubt where once stood moral certainty. When the word “truth” vanishes from the epigraph moments before the film proper, it doesn’t claim that war kills the truth. It shows that what we presumed to be the truth never was.
Thus Eye in the Sky drains the surveillance state of its moral promise. Its penetrating gaze turns upon the machine we constructed to take on the harrowing tasks of the conscience – to enlighten the glass darkly, to judge lest we be forced to judge. But it provides us no answers. It can’t. The god out of this machine does not leave us with a commandment, but a query. And it’s the one we’d been hoping to escape all along. Shalt thou kill?
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All images are screenshots from the film’s DVD.