I’m just out of a fascinating ‘interview’ – it was more like a conversation – with Reprieve’s Jennifer Gibson. If you don’t know about Reprive, they are a UK-based legal charity which works to promote and defend prisoners human rights be they on death row or in Guantanamo Bay: see here. More recently, Reprieve has set up its ‘Abuses in Counter-Terrorism’ program and since 2010 has been working on documenting drone violence in Pakistan and is currently setting the groundwork for a similar project in Yemen.
You’ll be hearing more from me about both Jen and Reprieve in the coming months, not least because I’ll be based in London come September and hope to be working with (or rather learning from) them during my tenure as visiting scholar at Royal Holloway Geography Department. But for now, something a little more light-hearted…
When I was preparing for our conversation last night, which of course involved finding out as much as I could about the organisation, I stumbled across something which surprised me. Yesterday, Reprieve premiered ‘Drones – It Wasn’t Me’, a parody video produced in conjunction with the always provocative advertising agency Don’t Panic London. The video is now available from Reprieve’s website, if for some reason the embed below doesn’t work. Watch, please, and then read on…
Here is what Reprieve has to say about it:
Featuring “President Obama”, “Shaggy” and “a drone”, the video is intended to raise awareness of Obama’s ongoing illegal drones programme in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – all countries with which the US is not at war.
The Director of Reprieve, Clive Stafford Smith followed up the release of the video with the following statement:
“The Shaggy Defense’ is arguably Shaggy’s greatest contribution to popular culture. Following the release of his eponymous smash hit, cheating spouses around the world began to heed his invaluable advice and just say, ‘it wasn’t me’, when caught philandering. The true brilliance of ‘the Shaggy defense’ is that it can be applied to almost any situation including international war crimes such as drone attacks. When asked, just say: “it wasn’t me, it was my drone.” Free legal advice: you’re welcome, Mr President.”
Whatever we make of this video, and indeed Clive’s comments – which are obviously intended with tongue-in-cheek – I think that context is important here. Reprieve is a serious organisation; half of the house is involved directly with litigation and defending high-profile cases from the U.S. the U.K and Pakistan (including Binyam Mohamed and Noor Khan), while the other half is devoted to ‘investigation’ (read research). The staff regularly travel to Pakistan and have a partner organization there, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), and they work closely with Islamabad lawyer Shahzad Akbar. Jennifer, who leads the drone team at Reprieve, was also one of the authors of the NYU/Stanford report ‘Living Under Drones’ (see Derek Gregory’s insights on the report here).
Why then produce this video? The answer is as simple as it is brilliant. Law is a strategy and a tactic; it can be deployed in a number of ways and in a variety of spaces. Contrary to what the legal formalists tell us, it isn’t always the written word or the court ruling that matters most. The lawyers should not always have the last say (especially if they also happen to be the President of the U.S.), because there are multiple ways of apprehending drones and drone wars and only one of them has anything to do with the law. These arguments are hardly new, but what is interesting about Reprieve’s foray into these mediums – by which I mean not just video, but music, pop-culture and it must be said, ridicule – is precisely the fact that even inasmuch as they take the law seriously, they show us that it is not beyond the fray. Indeed, the parody is not merely a commentary on the abuses of law by the Obama administration, it also tells us something about the nature and ridiculousness of law itself. Reprieve may disagree about the uses to which the law has been put, but the absurdity of the law is that according to the Obama administration it can be adapted and changed to suit the Executive.
What we witness through Obama’s personal involvement in the legal process and decision making on targeted killing (on which Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars is mandatory reading) is actually far worse than mere denial. In this sense, the parody is perfectly incorrect from a factual point of view. “It wasn’t me” may be a refrain used by previous Presidents (we know, for example, that from the Church Committee findings in 1975 to Scahill’s ‘Dirty Wars’ of 2013 that ‘plausible deniability’ is a doctrine that has proved very useful for the U.S. Government). But for himself at least Obama has chosen the opposite approach toward his targeted killing policy and as Commander in Chief he exercises his full power in terms of involving himself in the process of ‘prosecuting’ (read killing) targeting (Read about his “Terror Tuesday” meetings here). If anything, Obama’s refrain is “it was me” – remember he said he keeps drones on a “tight leash” – but given the overwhelming lack of transparency surrounding targeted killing we can only read this as implying a faux responsibility: “it was but wasn’t me”. Sometimes the thing on the leash gets out of control.
Of course, there must be multiple registers and mediums through which ‘we’ can and should oppose targeted killing, and these may be legal or they may be through comedy, but when a medium and an organisation exists which combines the two I think we are witnessing something which has unexplored potential. Many of the lawyers I meet are, by virtue of their occupation, serious people who do serious things (including the military lawyers who adjudicate on life and death decisions on a daily basis). But what happens when law and lawyers take themselves less seriously?
For one thing, I suspect that many of those hits on youtube are not from the same people who sit behind desks reading DOJ memos and the Geneva Conventions. Audiences, I think, with an emphasis on the plural there, are important and besides: since when did law ever go viral?