Monthly Archives: September 2021

Drone Warfare, Carpet Bombing, and Righteous Strikes

eThis was a problem that seemed to come out of Hell. The “righteous strike” of a drone-fired Hellfire Missile killed Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and his nieces and nephews was America’s military doing what it did best–a precision surgical strike on a human target. As much as targeting a human target who was instantaneously dismembered as his car shifted into park, the “Over the Horizon” strike cell commander who fired the missile from the drone was firing at a coordinate, and trusting in its authority. United States Dept. of Defense spokesperson John F. Kirby vowed “to study the degree to which any policies, procedures or targeting mechanisms may need to be altered going forward,” to be reviewed by a former senior staff officer in Afghanistan, assigning it high priority–but insisting that the strike was only green lighted after the American General at Central Command, or CENTCOM, who remained apprised of surveillance found “a reasonable certainty of the imminent threat that this vehicle posed.” The CENTCOM Commander apologized, saying “we thought [we had] a good lead,” the balance between “certainty” and “threat” was not so clearly mapped as the pinpoint targeting of the vehicle, watched for over eight hours.

There are problems of balancing an awesome strike ability of a Hellfire missile caused, the association of a missile conjuring the eternal fire faced by the dammed with a “righteous strike”: the death sentence that the missile passed as a remotely tracked technology of obliteration was invested with curiously religious terms, the fire of damnation a sentence of divine wrath, sending the fire of hell to the courtyard of a Kabul family residence to shatter the life of the wrong man who had been tracked for eight hours by Over-the-Horizon Strike Cell dedicated to disrupt the Islamic State Khorosan.

Afghan Neighbors Ponder the Courtyard of the Zemari Ahmadi’s Home in Kabul, Afghanistan
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Were the mechanisms for firing the laser-guided missiles encoded in the authority of the mapping tools that sent the laser-guided Hellfire missile to Kabul, as much as in faulty intelligence, and the limited guidance on targeting individuals? In what was almost a bravura use of force, American military drones fired Hellfire missiles as the airlift continued, on the eve of the United States departure, pointing to the appearance of secondary explosions as fireballs to indicate presence of explosives inside vehicles that ISIS operatives might drive into the airport for a second suicide attack. But if the strike was “deliberated” and the information military had collected “all added up,” the rules of engagement of airstrikes, as much as the human intelligence, implied deep ethical problems of trusting in the logic of maps to sift through evidence with greater accountability, especially as we seem to be approaching a threshold of increased engagement without men on the ground in Afghanistan, in developing an “over-the-horizon” strategy for the immediate future, as President Biden pursues his commitment to fight ISIS-K without actually increasing civilian deaths.

An Afghan man who lost family due to US drone strikes weeps.
Ajmal Ahmadi, Mourns Members of His Family Killed byu Hellfire Missile in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. 
Marcus Yam/Getty Images

The mechanics of the decision-making process that led to fire a drone that later killed Ahmadi and his children, nephews, and cousins is under review, but the verbal and epistemic confusion between what was first described as a “righteous strike” of vengeance, evoking the theory of “just war” that was invoked by President Barack Obama in invoking “just war theory” to rationalize the use of the military force not as a wanton or needless display of power and with the hope of saving lives to prevent the loss of lives, required, in his hope a “near-certainty of no collateral damage.” And while this was of course collateral damage of the most extensive time, the coverage of the extent of mis-targeting of believed terrorists reveal a terrifying cheapness of life, undoubtedly only able to be researched in detail for the jaw-dropping mistake of targeting of innocent civilians by a laser-guided missile due to the density of journalistic coverage of this particular strike, and journalistic presence documented the costs of erroneous strikes and the scope of civilian casualties as horrific as carpet bombing–if far more surgical–as if this were a far more humanitarian form of war whose precision could be labeled just. We were able to see the Taliban checkpoint that let in suicide bombers to Kabul’s airport, causing almost a hundred and fifty deaths, we became convinced of the ability of targeting precision strikes of the perpetrators of similar crimes, and amped up the intelligence networks to scour the city for signs of any activity appearing that it demanded to be targeted, and snuffed out.

Planet Labs Inc., image of Taliban checkpoint blocking access to Kabul’s international airport Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021
(Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Precise targeting, unlike bombing raids of the past, provided this certainty, or was supposed to offer surety of not being needless. But if such near-certainty depended on a map, it rests not on the accuracy of mapping. The strike that killed Zemerai Ahmadi — and ten of his family members–was mistakenly categorized as a “righteous strike,” killing an innocent aid worker and his family members. While it occurred in the heady atmosphere of retaliatory strikes for attempt to sabotage the withdrawal from Kabul’s airport attempted to be just, the slippage between the logic of targeted bombing and justice became apparent. It was a lurch to affirm global strength, more than justice, in using a technology of geolocation that had evolved to coordinate hand in glove with surveillance from Reaper drones. The ability to pinpoint track the progress of one car tagged as an imminent danger.

U.S. Central Command maps movement across Kabul of white Toyota Corolla on Aug. 29, 2021. CENTCOM/via Military Times

The mistaken of surveilling and targeting a young Afghan civilian in a Toyota Corolla was terrifyingly akin to the senseless bombing campaigns of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Laos, or more terrifying. Surveillance of Kabul and its airport were much better than Vietnam, by remote satellite and drone photography, the ability of such targeting–and the rush of such precision killing–seemed to follow the logic of the map, as much as people on the ground.

1. The maps used to conduct action at a great distance in Vietnam were not as transparent or evident, but they were for the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, they offered grounds to pose the eerily analogous question of the extent and expanse of the globalist claims of American power. The trust in the accuracy of maps provided an eery precedent for the confidence in strikes an old theater of empire, a theater once defined by imperial maps. The surety of the strikes that the UTM and LORAN B offered to American pilots existed in two theaters–the arena of the map that determined the strikes and the geographical space to which it corresponded, and old imaginaries of imperial and colonial power. The British empire was driven from Kabul in 1842 and 1843, and the French hold on Indochina had led them to withdraw; as the mapping techniques of post-war Europe led the United States to inherit Southeast Asia, global technologies of mapping opened the possibility of launching strikes that would offer lasting reminders as America withdrew from the Forever Wars in Afghanistan, leaving as the English did from both Kabul and Kandahar, but, in an attempt not to be forgotten, leaving a lasting imprint of the power of long-distance bombing. If combatants of most all wars fight with different maps, often reflecting differences in military intelligence, both these post-colonial wars were defined by the drastic dissonance of radically different maps of geospatial intelligence, one from the air and one on the ground, and the pursuit of a stubborn logic of air maps as if they offered both superior exactitude and geospatial intelligence, modernizing the struggle for control by defining a logic of modern military operations by which to understand and to shape the “sharp edge” of war.

Carpet Bombing in Vietnam by B-52 American USAF Planes

The beginning of the end of American Empire has been recently pegged to 1972, a year that marked and took stock of the the end of a huge expenditure of sustained bombing drives with little apparent enduring accomplishment. The geospatial logic that drove such earlier long-distance aerial bombing campaigns in Vietnam were driven by perhaps misplaced confidence in how maps enabled and facilitated military action at a distance: maps offered a logic, if there was one, for conducting the over six hundred sorties and operations over eight and a half thousand miles away. There is an eery analogy that we have the most complete and exact database for bombing raids of the American military in Vietnam, coordinates that were painstakingly compiled by Americans, so analogous to the geodata of thousands of drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, from 2004-2018, that the New American Foundation asserts the vast majority–over 80%–of those killed, were militants, though the Brookings Institution counters that drone strikes killed “10 or so civilians” for every militant who died,; Pakistan’s Interior Minister complained vigorously that a preponderance of the killed with civilians–especially in habitual follow-up strikes, targeting those responding to victims of the first hit, targeting of funeral processions, or mourners, or simply less surgical strikes.

When Barack Obama tweaked George Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan in terms of “just war” theory, he seemed to be relying on the accuracy and surgical nature of precision strikes: if the first attachment of a Hellfire missile to a drone followed the sighting of Osama bin Laden by one of the Predator Drone of the sort that flew across Afghanistan from September 7-25, 2000, in search of the terrorist who was wanted from 1998 suicide bombings in two U.S. embassies, his first strike at American territory; the unarmed CIA Predator was able to laster-illuminate and geolocate him so that it tracked him fro almost four and a half hours, but he could be hit b y a Tomahawk missiles, but the time-lag for firing Tomahawk missiles failed to guarantee a similar sort of accuracy; as the new tool of the CIA and US Air Force were mounted with Hellfire missiles, they sighted and shot at Mullah Omar in 2001, but missed him, destroying only his car.

Afghanistan became the terrain for “the future of our military,” where Predators defined the mobile “edge” of warfare waged overhead and across borders. Targeted assassinations by CIA and USAF targeted the Waziristan region, mapping the region with pin-point in the notion of a “just-war” theory, rehabilitating an ancient doctrine of right conduct in war–jus in bello–by modern tools of geolocation, leading to the escalation of pin-point targeting by drone-fired missiles. Despite widespread global opposition to the use of missile enhanced drones as tools of targeting objectives in war in the mountainous areas of Pakistan province where the Taliban had fled by 2011,–

Escalating Drone Strikes Targeting Taliban in Remote Mountainous Region of Waziristan

–and, from 2012, the CIA went out of its way to try to design alternate missiles to “shred” vehicles and their inhabitants, but without blasts, to attempt to minimize “collateral damage” or killings.

Secret U.S. Missile Aims to Kill Only Terrorists, Not Nearby Civilians - WSJ
 Hellfire Modified to Limit Damage of Bystanders, Used from 2012

By the time the final American forces were set to ferry the final civilians from Kabul, however, the logic of drone strikes shifted to the homefront of Kabul, set motion by the terrifying suicide bomber who struck Kabul’s airport, killing 143 Afghans and 13 American servicemen. In what was either the last gap or new frontier of geolocated killing, drones targeted Hellfire missiles in pinpoint strikes across Afghanistan, in “just” retribution of the fear of further K-ISIS suicide attacks on the ground during the last days of American presence in Afghan territory focussed on flights departing Kabul, revealing an ability of surveilling, targeting and striking far into the country as American forces departed the ground, as if to alert the Taliban of the continued proximity of CENTCOM bases in Qatar.

However celebratory the drone strike seemed, hellfire missled that killed Ahmadi suggested the haunting return of a lack of justice on August 29, as twenty pounds of explosive struck the car of the breadwinner of an extended Afghan family, with seven children who depended on his work. The children who had rushed out to greet him as he pulled his own white Toyota Corolla into the driveway of his personal home were not seen by the man who fired the drone missile, who felt secure no civilians were nearby. As we examined footage to detect the alleged secondary explosion, we found a weird echo of the airstrikes of an earlier war removed from our continent. While much comparison between the messy tactics and poor planning American withdrawals from Vietnam and Kabul spun, the incomplete coverage of the “collateral deaths” of civilians from the strike led to the military’s eventual backpedalling of its story of striking ISIS-K as an act of counterterrorism or “righteous strike.”

It was only due to careful investigation on the ground that the horrendous mistake was discovered. Reporters used footage from security cameras to follow the forty-one year old aid worker before he was driver targeted by the Hellfire missile suggested the poor intelligence which operators of “strike cel commander” who had been operating the drone in Kabul. Even as we await analysis of the decision-making mechanisms, we wonder a the high degree of certainty in public statements, even as questions circulated from the start of accurate video analysis of an after-blast confirming, as was claimed, that the Toyota Corolla was carrying a payload of ISIS-K bombs, and the lack of a mechanism of review before the drone strike. The accuracy of targeting the car was questioned by journalists as Spencer Ackerman all too familiar from the targeting of civilians that had escalated in previous years. Although announced as compensatory for the deadly suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport, killing Afghans and thirteen U.S. military, as a second drone strike on ISIS-K leaders in Nangarhar Province of an “Islamic State planner” in retaliation for the deadly suicide bombing–and entranced the world with the surgical take-out of the very operatives who allegedly planned the airport attack that killed thirteen American service men and 146 Afghans, as they rode a three-wheeled truck near the Pakistani border from 7,350 miles away in the Nevada desert, injuring an associate but killing the two men immediately. There was a perfect symmetry in the image of men who were riding in a tuk-tuk being obliterated by a strike that left a crater four feet deep.

While removed in time, the bombing campaigns in Vietnam have left precise geodata for bombing raids so comprehensive to be able to map cumulative raids over time. The result privileges strikes over deaths, in the eerily lifeless and quite terrifying record of Bombing Target Maps,–charting sustained campaigns of bombing at a distance waged in maps. This blog considered human costs of aerial perspectives both as a result of the acceleration of bombing campaigns in World War II and how maps jusfitied and normalized the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As the longest and least accomplished use of maps to sustained military engagement at a distance, is impossible not to consider the retrospective view it offers and reveals on the logic of the role of drones in Forever Wars. Systematic carpet bombing of Southeast Asia was pursued 1965-1973 as if by a logic of mapping, escalating by 1972 in a failing attempt to illustrate global dominance. The increased exactitude of the map becam a rationale for the power to wage war from afar, both to compensate for a lack of information on the ground, and to compensate for more irreducible problems of distance: mapping tools promised a logic of the ability to operate smoothly across frontiers. The unprecedented global coverage of GPS coordinates was administered and run by the United States for Vietnam through 1975, long after the war concluded. But the role of maps in waging war early emerged. If the United States in 1959 had blocked adoption of new standards of global projection, perhaps linking knowledge to power, the Army Service had recalculated surveys of Southeast Asia–Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam from the global projection that became a basis to collate new geodata–the Army relied on for staging helicopter raids in Vietnam, and, later, for long-range bombing campaigns.

Tet Offensive, 1968

Not that this was always smooth. Despite troubling distortions inherent in the UTM along South Vietnam’s north-south axis and border with Cambodia, coordinates provided a basis for conducting war at an unprecedented distance, even if they would necessitate revamped geodetic networks to minimize built-in distortions. They offered a sense of security, notwithstanding, for the aerial sorties that continued to exercise claims to global power even in an unfamiliar theater of combat. Despite the huge ethical questions and costs, the authority of maps assumed huge costs as they were were able to conceal huge liabilities, changing the nature of the battle line at which we were now, as a nation, waging war, and its ethical costs: for we were bombing locations, not people, and the people were faceless who the bombs were targeting, othered, and in the national imaginary all but erased. It would take a force of consciousness, indeed, to place them on the map–on the ground photography remained relatively rare. And it is the ability to erase people by dots that provided, this post argues, a similar logic for the expansion of drone raids and drone-delivered bombs.

As bombing raids hit the the Seventeenth Parallel, the war was fought on a map: as much as Võ Nguyên Giáp revealed his military tactical genius as military commander of the Việt Minh, who had developed with stunning success the principle of Sun Tzu in successfully applying minimum military force to maximum effect in deploying light infantry in the First Indochina War, and in engineering of the Ho Chi Minh trail, did the deceptions of UTM distortions make Americans who sung the blues of Toby Hughes’s “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” sung to the tune of “Billy the Kid,” as a blues of airspace: “When you fly on the Trail through the dark and the haze/It’s a think you’ll remember the rest of your days./A nightmare of vertigo, mountain, and flak,/And the cold wind of Death breathing soft at your back”? “Uncle Sam needs your help again,” began another of the many songs that tried to process distance and space during the war, “He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Viet Nam.”

File:Ho Chi Minh Trail network map.jpg
Ho Chi Minh Trail Netork (1990)
Week of September 27 | Vietnam War Commemoration

Americans administrators plagued by lack of knowledge about Southeast Asia or South Vietnam’s leadership relied on maps crippled by distortions. If the blues developed on the plantation, the wartime blues was a lament popular with American pilots as a new folksong of technological divide piltos sung as they balanced the demands of flight they shouldered–“the trucks must be stopped, and it’s all up to you,/ So you fly here each night to this grim rendez-vous”–to allay fears of meeting their fates in contested military space above the Trail, watching those “trucks roll on through darkness not stopping to rest,” consigned to their fate nervously navigating airspace from charts, “our whole world confined to the light of the flare,/And you fight for your life just to stay in the air./For there’s many a man who there met his fate,/On the dark roads of Hell, where the grim reaper waits.”

Carpet bombing was hardly comfortable, but was filled with fear. And one is filled by an eery apprehension at the ease with which geolocated records of bomb strikes in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia translate across time into a Google Maps platform, and the translation of the coordinates to a geospatial grid that we all have come to adopt to navigate space. UTM grid zones in Southeast Asia, as Bill Rankin noted, split in inconvenient ways in Southeast Asia, and although bombers were relying on them in raids that spanned over five years, As the provisional line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam, the so called “DMZ” of the Seventeenth Parallel Mendès France negotiated in 1954 was pounded twenty years later with all the firepower America could muster, trying to secure its border by a crazy huge show of power at a distance.

The result of these compound offensives was to riddle the countries with some 2.7 tonnes of explosives, as we were asked to keep our eyes on a static maps on television screens. This was described poetically as “carpet bombing” or continuous bombardment, first used only in 1944, in response to destructive V-1 and V-2 bombs, to mark a shift from the largely targeted bombing of industrial sites in the war. The sense of a lack of restraints or targets dramatically grew in the Vietnam War, as a no holds barred method, long before Ted Cruz vowed to recommit American to the carpet bombing of the Middle East to “utterly destroy ISIS,” asserting, as if in a perverse science experiment, that while he didn’t “know if sand can glow in the dark,” he would ensure American planes bomb ISIS positions until the sand glowed, in 2015,–intimating a carpet bombing of nuclear proportions. Donald Trump amped up Cruz on the campaign trail in Iowa, by promising not only to “bomb the shit out of ’em,” and “bomb the pipes, bomb the refineries, and blow up every single inch” of refineries to prepare for several months of rebuilding of pipelines by Exxon to “take the oil.” Since the debut of smart bombs in global video during the 1991 Gulf War, the sense of carpet bombing seems to have been consigned into the past, with the trust in the security of drone-fired bombs from 2003 promising to strike targets in a far more humanitarian way.

As the Vietnam War intensified, the long year of March 18, 1969-May 28, 1970 brought daily bombing of Cambodia, all but omitted from the entry of troops into Cambodia we watched on a static map on black and white televisions. Even as the escalation of disproportionate bombing campaigns that only ended on August 15, 1973 grew, they set a standard of sorts for the elegance of airborne strikes from afar.

Tet Offensive Bombing Campaign, 1968

2. The limits of local intelligence recalled the opaque maps before which an earlier Commandeer-in-Chief who, convinced of the logic of military strikes, attempted to project assurance at having directed American troops to enter Cambodia in April, 1970, as bombing grew. Just two years before the continued expenditure on aerial bombing campaign seven thousand miles away revealed a failure to reach military objectives announced a start of the decline of the American empire, the drone strike at the old colonial city of Kabul CentCom ordered revealed a continued commitment to the logic of military engagement by drone that animated the logic of war under an inauspicious promise to Maker America Great Again: the conducting of increased bombing strikes eight and a half thousand miles away would grow in intensity from 1970, but the argument Richard Nixon made was not apparent, as it rested on a geospatial map, but used the crude maps of boundaries of states few Americans were familiar–Laos, Cambodia; South Vietnam; North Vietnam–that hardly reflected why such intense bombing would be occurring around the seventeenth parallel, or mapped a clear vision of strategy.

American Troops Enter Cambodia, April 30, 1970

Even as we knew enough to be skeptical of his map of crude cut-outs, remembering Dresden Hiroshima, and My Lai aggression against civilians, but knowing we had heard stories from reporters on the ground about its intensity. And so we watched the maps of new offensives, distrusting escalated air bombing in times of war–if we knew not to trust them, we took to the streets in protests because we remembered, and because the official news maps of selective hits in one offensive was a partial story–and the danger of what was being targeted by a carpet of explosive bombs dropped.

Carpet Bombing of Vietnam

–hardly mapped the increased intensity of air strikes of carpet bombing, that created a show of force of unseen intensity across the country that covered the borders between north and south Vietnam and the coast, as 7.5 million tons of bombs across Laos, Vietnam , and Cambodia, between 1965-75, from Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68) and Operation Steel Tiger (1965-68), to the extended campaigns in Laos of Operation Barrel Roll (1964-1973) to Cambodia, in Operation Menu (1969-70), covering the country in toto, but shifting to Laos and Cambodia and along the seventeenth parallel from 1971-2, trying to hit precise locations at UTM coordinates, covering the old DMZ with bombs.

There was something weird, as from a nation of the crossers of borders, we flew bombs across borders, carpeting regions with devastation, from the shorelines of Southeast Asia, to the interior, to the shore again, this time with even greater intensity and around what was then Saigon.

The intensity of carpet bombing was astounding in Cambodia and Vietnam, literally coloring huge swaths of the country red, in these maps that use red dots for cumulative tallies of bombing strikes.

U.S. Secret Bombing of Cambodia | rabble.ca
Aerial Bombardment by US Air Force of Cambodia, 1965-1973

The danger of those bombing strikes on civilians were rarely described, or even comprehended, at a distance. But visualizing the faces of the civiliians whose towns and life were disrupted so violently became a basis for protesting the war–and a crystallizing factor in antiwar protests as the bombing campaigns grew–as the ends of carpet bombing as a targeting of civilians nonetheless grew all too painfully clear, as the very intensity of such carpet bombing seemed a deeply unethical war.

Anti-War Protest Button, 1972

3. Precision strikes seemed more humane than carpet bombs. But the precision bombs of the Forever Wars were, perhaps haunted by those images of civilians with targets on their crudely drawn heads, trying to advertise themselves less as a global over-reach of the targeting of precise strikes in another hemisphere, a campaign that in fact began, back in the response to the apparent hubris of 9/11, in the battery of B-52’s brought out from retirement, before the Defense Department hit on the new idea of acquiring drones and investing in drone technologies, a budget that has risen to above $7 billion by 2021, whose use is severely restricted in American airspace, but seems the perfect medium for fighting forever wars, on which the United States has come to rely since at least 2005. Fighting the Forever Wars and for counterterrorism programs, a new logic of military engagement, although the program that was first used in 2003 to strike targets developed in secrecy as a way of blurring the “sharp edge of battle,” described by British military historian John Keegan as incomplete or elided in most military histories. Now the “sharp edge” is both everywhere, blurred, and intentionally difficult to see.

The airspace for operating for the 11,000 drones or “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” in the United States that the U.S. Department of Defense currently owns and operates in American airspace are far from civilian centers in the United States–but the logic of pinpointing strikes 7,000 miles away provided a precision bombing that replaced or antiquated carpet bombing, billed in a new humanitarian guise.

Department of Defense Special Use Airspace, 2006

–but the rest of the world is, as the Kabul airstrike reveals, an open surgical target. And the increasingly intentionally reduced transparency of an increased national commitment to military drones in the Trump administration has created a new logic for the use of military force, via armed drones, and the unprecedented mobility of military theaters, under the cover of the advancement of either military or national security objectives. The bulk of the drone programs run by the CIA are shrouded in entire secrecy, although the commitment to reducing any sense of transparency and accountability–a main operating strategy or modus operandi of the recent Commander-in-Chief–has left a stamp on the U.S. Drone Program that will be difficult to erase, and a new sense of the secret maps by which war is waged.

As military operators of drones gained far greater air-strike-decision ability and independence, both in the military and the CIA’s separate drone strike operations, a new level of security was increasingly embedded in the logic of the map. There was, moreover, not even a requirement for registering enemy or civilian casualties, even if they might embrace deaths, since Trump issued Executive Order 13732, exempting both the US Army or for the CIA for any such responsibility for strikes outside combat zones; strike-enabled drones were granted greater operating grounds with less scrutiny or oversight. At the same time, oversight of sales of U.S. drones waned, and the Department of State gained the ability of direct commercial sales without oversight or special export conditions. Drones, in short, became the new currency of the war, and the means by which anything like a familiar battle line vanished. Removing strikes of pin-point precision from a system of military review so localized the “sharp of edge of battle” that it might migrate, given the ease of mapping, to a civilian garage.

Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam / MCT

The drone strike seems emblematic not of a hasty withdrawal from Kabul, but of the confusion of military and civilian space in the war that readily relocated anywhere on the geospatial grid. In targeting the driver’s side of the white Toyota with incredible precision, we can see something of a history lesson in how mapping tools offer terrifyingly increased precision strikes. Although the Pentagon assured us that the existence of “significant secondary explosions” occurred, indicating a “significant explosive load” in the car with “minimum collateral damage,” and “reasonable certainty” of no nearby civilians, the lack of any grounds for certainty of explosives or an absence of civilians suggest not only the fallibility of human intelligence, but the Hellfire warhead that ruptured the tank while targeting the driver’s seat was a disproportionate show of force of awesome precision led its operators to trusted was trusted with “reasonable certainty” to pose “imminent threat.”

Drone strikes were not particularly effective against Taliban forces, and rarely contained them. But the act of power of pummeling Afghan locations that seemed worrisome with credible degrees of “reasonable certainty” was a release. It led to an escalation unprecedented in airstrikes against the nation as a show of power–until the end of DOD releasing of air strike data during negotiations with the Taliban; if airstrikes stopped, the shipment and stockading of increased armaments funneled to the Afghan army’s American-built bases in an attempt to overpower the nation that created its own dynamic of awesome war all but erasing the sharp edge of battle. The escalation of strikes as Trump assumed office had only recently grown to unprecedented heights.

More seriously, without any public release of the principles and procedures guiding the U.S. drone program, secrecy shrouds the legitimacy of the use of drones or the notion of the responsible use of drone strikes of increasingly powerful capacity, undermining the accountability of the military’s actions. It is perhaps ironic that this is being revealed on the eve of the departure from Afghanistan, and twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, which were such a shocking violation of territoriality: the expansion of no oversight on drone strikes risks undermining legitimate military goals, and even undermining national security interests, in finally attaining the capacity to act as a rogue state.

4. Although the possibility of retributive payments for these lives have not been publicly raised, although America has discussed “considering ex gratia or reparations,” the demands for some sort of compensation for those who were killed outright by what U.S. Cent Com admits as a “mistake.” If the walking back from early qualifications that rather than being a direct hit in retribution for the airport strike against U.S. military, the strike was “unlikely . . . those who died [jn the drone strike] were associated with ISIS-K,” or a “righteous strike” foiling a strike, the admission of guilt by the “strike cell commander” located in Kabul raises questions of the logic of military engagement in an era of drone war. The increased trust in the mapping systems–rather than on-the-ground intelligence or a need for confirmation–had brought the war on rural Afghanis to the nation’s capitol, leaving looming questions of why the country was not so concerned to use arms left by Americans to repel the Taliban, and how the logic of drone warfare expanded in the Forever Wars as a logic of surgical strikes that had boasted to not involve or affect civilian populations.

This time

This time, the on the ground tracing of the Toyota Corolla’s movement in downtown Kabul led it to be targeted based on faulty information, and faulty flagging of suspicions in Ahmadi’s white Corolla, or the proximity with which it was parked or had stopped near an ISIS-K compound. The tracking of the car as it moved along city blocks and well-known streets led to the capture of surveillance footage of Ahamadi filling his car with water bottles, and dropping off coworkers, while he returned to his family, but it is unclear how a review of policies and procedures of targeting mechanisms will alter the logic of the drone strike as a surgical tool of war; just after the admission of mistakes in mapping and targeting of an Afghan civilian, CENTCOM followed up with announcement of the drone strike of a “senior al-Qaida leader” in Syria, in which “we struck the individual we were aiming for, and there are no indications of civilian casualties as a result of the strike,” as if to demonstrate how the smoothly the logic of drone strike technology could continue to work.

Yet, as journalists were increasingly present in Vietnam to film, witness and provide testimony of the devastation of bombing raids, with increased secrecy around drone strike programs, we have to wonder whether the mapping of civilian casualties will be something that would be in the government interests to continue, or if it is the case that the sharp edge of war has been definitively blurred. There was, by chance, due to the intense on the ground presence of journalists, an attempt to review the way that we set up what was almost a “home front” in Afghanistan; the victims of strikes were captured on closed circuit television, and could be tracked through the city of Kabul. Unlike for most drone strikes, we have faces, making it all the more possible to grieve their deaths and need to figure out how best to mourn their needless deaths, if not to take them as emblematic of the 71,000 civilian deaths from military campaign in Afghanistan we are told will come to an end. Though this time, we know their names–and can say them–the children of Mr. Ahmadi, Zamir, 20; Faisal, 16; Farzad (10); the children of his cousin Naser, Arwin, 7; Benyamin, 6; Hayat, 2, Malika, 2, and Somaya, 3, as well as a former Afghan officer who worked with the US military, Ahmad Naser–and we know how to say their names, that basic, elemental form of mourning that we never had access to in the past–let alone the series of smiling head shots.

More to the point, our actions are effectively setting international standards for drone strike accountability and for the limits of drone use, running counter to global security, and how drone strikes in the future wars that may be, eventually, used against us, as well.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, bombing raids, military maps, military weapons

Undue Burdens: Heartbeats v. Health Care

Anti-abortion activists almost salivated in saying that “it all comes down to Alito,” as they hoped the Court might affirm the recent restriction of women’s access to abortion in the state. Right to Life groups were particularly ardent about Alito’s willingness to allow the Texas Heartbeat Act, which was up for review from the court, as if their efforts were getting national attention and could tip national law. John Seago, as legislative director of Texas Right to Life, expected Justice Alito to represent the interests of his organization, as he deferred to the judgement of one Supreme Court member in open terms, as if to privilege his role as an intercessory advocate: “We are [just] hopeful that Justice Alito will examine why the [request to stop the law being enacted on constitutional grounds] should ultimately be dismissed,” hoping to find a like-minded member of the court to recognize Texas’ right as a state to define wrongs against a public good that would trump personal rights.

The introduction of the elusive and illusory “fetal heartbeat” as a mandated threshold for medical care created a sort of mirror in which to provoke penitent reflection , the “now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t” quality of whatever flicker of motion is detectable in a sonogram of a fetal pole so illusory that the measurement that was introduced in prenatal clinical care as a means to reassure women of the viability of their pregnancy is both not a heart beat and in fact impossible to measure, even if it seems to be about to admitted in court as a grounds for criminalization.

Legislators across several states have compelled women seeking abortions to undergo, irrespective of medical need, compulsory transvaginal ultrasounds, for the past ten years, using invasive insertion of a probe into the vagina to generate an ultrasound image now regarded as a basis for juridical truth. The invasive procedure now not only offers a means of dating pregnancy; the mandating of ultrasounds across much of America, as Texas, Louisiana, Wisconsin and Oklahoma all voted to mandatorily display and describe the image of an ultrasound to the woman in preparation for the abortion, regardless of a physician’s will or medical need, making the viewing of an ultrasound was part of the procedure of abortion for woman in South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Arkansas, and Idaho–all Republican legislatures. The mandated insurance introduced in the America Cares Act led to a jump on “legal” restrictions on abortion since 2011, as local state legislators introduced 1,100 reproductive health and rights-related provisions and adopted 135 ways to qualify women’s access to abortion in 36 states, as if in a dialectic relation to attempts to expand an individual mandate for health insurance for all. Is it a concerted strategy not only to curtail reproductive rights, but to a wedge against the desired expansion of an indivdual mandate for health insurance? The growth over the years from 2010-2013 of mandated ultrasounds across the United States provided a sort of resistance; as mandated ultrasounds grew by 2013, their effect unclear, but were mandated often with an opportunity to view whether or not the woman “availed herself” of the opportunity to view–or a mandate to view and have described in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, North Carolina and Wisconsin, as if an exercise of biomedical introspection.

The very image-making technology relied on to record a so-called fetal “heart beat” at the center of Texas State Bill 8–as well as to date the abortions after six weeks that it would make a crime–had been on the books in many states; if the images were rarely used as evidence that further restricted access to abortion, they have become a basis, once admitted as legal evidence, to restrict reproductive health by introducing the “personhood” of the fetus into state legislation in ways that were not imagined or fully foreseen. The image-making technology able to confirm viability of a pregnancy was recently hijacked in Texas to remap the start of personhood in the embryo, would dangerously remap women’s access to medical or reproductive care. The rise of local laws, from 2010 in Michigan and 2012 in Virginia, require doctors, irrespective of medical need, to furnish women–even for victims of rape or incest–with a photograph of the ultrasound, hours before the procedure occurred, a moment of “viewing” that is intended to provoke introspection, but this seems a rhetorical hope without actual impact in women’s decision to terminate their pregnancy: if women appreciate the option to view an ultrasound, limited studies found, viewing images of the embryo before first-trimester abortions, those who viewed mandated ultrasounds were unlikely to stop their decision, if earlier decisions to terminate pregnancies might shift to continuing pregnancies to term.

Mandated Ultrasound Prior to Abortion | Journal of Ethics | American  Medical Association

The physically intrusive procedure of registering the embryonic activity now serves to date an abortion’s compliant with state law in Texas and generate a legal document, from which a physician cannot opt out, that will enter a woman’s personal medical record, more than a measure to judge fetal health for medical ends, but to prove fetal personhood; mandating ultrasounds become a form of state surveillance in recent “heartbeat” bills analogous to SB 8. It would justify the apprehension of “guilty” parties and all complicit in assisting a crime. The Texas legislators about Governor Abbott posed in triumphant chorus, eight women joining male legislators in using hands to form a heart to demonstrate their collective love for the unborn in an official House photograph. Their action fetishized the “heart” as a rounded sign widely shared on social media affirmed electric impulses in the embryo’s cardiac chambers signified personhood, and the common identity of legislators in a new political strategy, signing emotional identity with the unborn and a collective political mobilization, the “heartbeat” a collective acknowledgement of a bill that strategically imposed their will on the state.

The circumscription of abortion rights is of course the goal of such recent legislation of health policy. The crusading legal architect of the new state-wide policy, Stephen F. Mitchell, put it even more bluntly before the Supreme Court, by lamenting the court’s imputation of any “‘right’ to abortion” as only a purely “court-invented right” that was judicially concocted with no constitutional grounds.

But the public safety dangers of the reign of terror that has inspired fears in so many abortion clinics to shutter their doors for women before they would even realize their pregnancy is a terrifying denial of medical care. The Texas Governor addressed anti-abortion activists alone when, in a signing ceremony, he praised “our creator” for having “endowed us with the right to life”–taking pleasure in the deeply distorting version he presented of human rights claims–adopting anti-abortion claims by ensuring “that the life of every unborn child that has a heartbeat will be saved from the ravages of abortion” as if this invasive procedure would convert all women seeking abortion to Magdalenes. As 49% of the almost a million American women who underwent abortions lived below federal standards of poverty in 2014, an growing demographic among those clinics surveyed, the largest proportion among those describing themselves as unmarried, although claims for Magdalene’s promiscuity and poverty was a story strategically spun by Pope Gregory I in 592, although the exorcisms and penance of Mary were of scriptural origin; the image of the repentant woman who could preach abandoning the sinful path of abortion by recanting her decision to terminate pregnancy and carrying to term would illustrate her faith and conversion seemed a storyline that antiabortion activists relished in imagining a prominent role for women as advocates of their cause.

Georges de La Tour - Magdalen of Night Light - WGA12337.jpg
George de la Tour, “Magdalene with Smoking Flame” c. 1640

The redemption that Abbott acted as if he might promise residents of the state of Texas was, of course, contingent on the circumscription of the rights of pregnant women. We are, post-Trump, perhaps only beginning to come to terms with the effects of the cases about abortion rights invited by the new stamp that Trump put on the justices of the United States Supreme Court, for whom abortion could be recast by local legislators and local votes, as Antonin Scalia had sketched in his dissent to cases about Row and abortion rights–rights he claimed invented and absent from the Constitution.

What we may map as a Texan peculiarity suggests dramatically receding windows at which women can seek abortion of undue restrictiveness on a far broader map. While Texas offers a reflection of long-term restrictions on access to abortion poses health care problems a state where constitutional rights are under attack–creating twin deserts of women’s health care and rights that should make everyone rage. Although access to abortion is described as “settled law,” on the federal level, the insistence Roe v. Wade or later decisions entitling women to seek abortions as a matter of constitutionally protected rights to privacy has been revealed to be a vulnerable protection of civil rights by the current attempts of town councils or state legislators to push back on precedent. By 2016, but sixteen clinics served women across the state; “Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn” in the state multiplied soon after the June 2019 decision of the city counsellors of Waskom, TX , 5-0, as part of a concerted strategy to ‘outlaw abortion, one city at a time,” as much as a grass roots movement. The vote encouraged some thirty-eight cities to pass ordinances outlawing practice of abortion in their limits, voting against abortion in a strategy Justice Antonin Scalia advocating abortion demanded to be understood by voting on local laws, as it had no actual constitutional basis in a literal reading of the frames; following declarations of Waskon and Lubbock in Texas, twenty-five other municipalities in Texas, Nebraska, and Ohio adopted the strategy of the former Texas Solicitor General Jonathan F. Mitchell, who had clerked for Scalia, to curtail access to abortion at a municipal level of governance. Mitchell offered legal assistance to frame local statues to circumvent reluctance among Attorneys General to criminalize abortion, triggering a fake grass roots city-by-city battle against to undermine federal precedent or judicial consensus by city councils’ municipal secession.

Municipality of Waskom, TX Passes Ordinance Declaring Itself a Sanctuary City for the Unborn, June 11 2019

Texas stands as a site to break precedent on a national scale, disrupting consensus by adopting a precedent in which municipalities, counties, and state legislators develop tools to push back upon long-established consensus. After a spate of “trigger laws,” designed to take effect if and when the Supreme Court , taking what was settled law into a dangerous field of “direct democracy” and false populism as a contravention of “Texas law” or of what Texas is unique, perhaps, exploiting legal double-speak, since presenting the 2012 attempt to confine abortion access to hospital settings as preserving women’s health care, to the recent emergence of a discourse on “fetal rights” and fetal personhood, long a staple of anti-abortion activists, that has lead to a state bill invoking legal models of bringing suits against medical malpractice and the circumscription of freedoms, but are designed to circumscribe women’s rights to access to quality health care.

As lawyers have reasoned that the courts had “concocted” a “right to abortion” undermining the public good, they have concocted the detection of a “fetal heartbeat” in the embryo as able to be read as grounds for personhood. This far more dangerous fiction of mapping identity in an organ whose chambers are not yet fully formed, but a powerful designator of humanity, is all the more apt to be read as one by the untrained, ready to see in the ultrasound what they want to see. The fiction of scientific objectivity led Texas Right to Life to distribute “Ordinances Abolishing Abortion” to towns from August, 2019, as boilerplate for city councils to “take matters into your own hands by petitioning your local government to protect unborn children”–by creating far more restrictive understanding of reproductive rights in the nation. These ordinances not only restrict access to abortion, but provide a dramatic curtailing of women’s access to reproductive health of serious risk to the nation and the country. For with the expanded affirmation of access to abortion in several states in the northeast and west, the municipal votes in Texas suggest a local disruption of legal consensus long in the making, and seeking to divide the nation in the health rights it guarantees pregnant women.

States Colored in Red Are Likely to Prohibit, Try to Prohibit or Restrict Abortion Access if Roe v. Wade Falls, Prtoections to Access in Yellow and Expanded Access in Green/Center for Reproductive Rights

We understand Texas, in the popular imagination, as the periphery: near the promise of the “border wall,” it has emerged as an edge of America, To be sure, the on-the-ground picture in Texas of access to abortion has revealed disturbing trends for some time–disturbing trends on a national level as well–that may not have fully been appreciated in those blue state residents often insulated in levels of existential panic. Yet the recent questioning of the difference between burdens due and undue, as if seeking some semantic clarity in an issue that is imputed to be “muddled” by the court’s failure to distinguish burdens that are “undue” from those that are “due” conceals the eagerness of hitting upon a unprecedented stratagem to recast national laws about access to health care in a regressive and retrograde fashion. Despite the huge “abortion deserts”–a map of which nationwide is in the header to this post–that demands being seen as a health-care desert–

“Abortion Deserts,” Distances to Clinics or Facilities Providing Access to Abortion , 2018
Journal of Medical Internet Research May 2018/UCSF, UC Berkeley

The map may be unpacked a bit. The striking distances of abortion facilities to population centroids in counties offers a way to approximate the needed distance of travel to publicly-identifiable abortion facilities, and then observe the shift in distances that would be created by such ‘trigger bans” and outright bans on abortion, as authors of a recent article in Contraception warned their readers already in 2019:

The changes of declining access to abortion were imagined to be pronounced:

Predicted changes in abortion access and incidence in a post-Roe world -  Contraception

When the New York Times tried to map the landscape that the court’s decision could create by one decision, the actuality of affirming the “right” to abortion–in fact a right to privacy or to health care–as a judicial concoction imposed on the nation for women living in the twelve states that have adopted “trigger laws” that reflect a war of values between the culture of urban metro areas providing abortions to women in extra-urban regions whose access will be rather dramatically curtailed and reduced.

To be sure, the landscape in Texas since 2016 was bleak, with most clinics performing abortion only in cities in a very big state indeed, making a landscape ripe for curtailing reproductive rights, creating a stark urban-rural split as a microcosm of red-blue state division at the height of the Trump era: Austin, Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth were relabelled as “cites of death” in the cartography of Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn, whose very name conjures the national division of the Trump Era. Even after the restrictive statutes of 2013 were struck down by the Supreme Court, Texas Right-to-Life has come to regard itself as battling the legislation of Roe v. Wade for the forces of good, in a landscape that already placed women in one hundred counties one hundred miles away from a clinic providing abortion in the name of the freedom of the unborn.

The threshold for abortion in the state of Texas was pushed back from fetal viability to just twenty weeks after conception, not so significantly different from the twenty-two to twenty-four weeks standard in the nation on paper, but a month that means a significant reduction of reproductive rights.

The current determination of the “life” of the unborn as existing at a cellular level–a platform of anti-abortion activism, dressed in the terms of modern science–suggests bogus indices to clarify what is not that Solomonic a distinction between viability outside the womb and within that Roe v. Wade established. The reliance on increased technologization of pregnancy offers a far more restrictive standard for access to abortion would dangerously curtail public health access of women across the nation–even if the “heart beat” mapped in the embryo by transvaginal ultrasounds is a a visual illusion, transmitted from the maternal heart beat or fluid moving within the maternal bowel where the embryo is developing, but while developmentally unable to be termed a heartbeat, if it suggests the viability of the fetal development. The ultrasound image is masquerading as a language of medical objectivity in red states, however, to magnify “abortion deserts” in “red” states– “abortion deserts” that curtail women’s access to health care and rights to privacy able to gloss the divide between ‘blue’ and ‘red’ states, reading both in increasingly limited interpretations of rights. While Senate Bill 8 asserted abortion was a criminal act of a doctor, a crime no District Attorney would prosecute, the promising of a minimum compensation–better seen as an effective bounty–of $10,000 guaranteed to all citizens, neighbors, family and friends willing to report any attempts to terminate pregnancy by abortion six weeks after conception allowed them to reclaim the status of a longstanding crime in Texas law no District Attorney would deem to prosecute, and only metropolitan areas provide sufficient coverage to pregnant women seeking medical care.

The shifting grounds of access on women’s health care in Texas as been watched for decades in the state, as much as from afar, closing clinics to effect a decrease in abortions, even after the U.S. Supreme Court had queried several of its provisions as “undue burdens” on pregnant women. Even after the suit brought against the State by an abortion provider, Whole Women’s Health, aware and fearful of the dangers that closing abortion providers in South and West on women’s health care, the decrease in state-wide abortions by a third as providers shifted after fifty miles away seems in retrospect a successful ground-game for curtailing access to abortion, and one that encouraged several municipalities to adopt restrictive local measures on abortion access. In ways that seem to have emerged in reaction to the America Cares Act, or Obamacare, the new law suggests how the state became a battleground for finding practices for restricting abortion rights, turbocharged by making restrictions amenable to the new composition of a Supreme Court increasingly eager to letting state law stand, with an eye to reviewing not state policy but Roe.

Number of Clinics Providing Abortions in Texas, 2012-2016/Source: New York times, 2016

By entitling all Texans to bring civil suits on their own, however, as agents of the state, legislators mapped out a terrifying geography to trumped a pregnant woman’s Constitutional right to privacy.; SB 8 frames a new geography of health care that restricts abortion far beyond these “sanctuary cities,” offering rewards for enforcing restrictions on abortion beyond six weeks as impervious to judicial review as dangerous acts. By appealing to the collective enforcement of retrograde principles of moral purity, limiting access to health care in the guise of “heartbeat laws” affirm fetal personhood. Exploiting the performance of sonograms from measures of fetal health, the standard procedure after February 6, 2012 was mandated for all pregnant women seeking to abort became admissible evident in civil courts. Women compelled to be shown sonograms by the doctor performing the abortion since 2012 within twenty-four hours of the procedure accompanied by an audible recording of the embryo’s cardiac activity, found the clinical relation to their doctor a way to furnish a legal record of abetting criminal activity and a public form of shaming. The “heartbeat” was not created by an actual closure of tricuspid valves, or a beat identical to the cardiovascular pulse of an extra-uterine environment, or either a basis for viability or as synchronized with breath. But it adopted how ultrasounds have become standard ways of screening embryonic abnormalities of cardiac development during the formation of valves of cardiac chambers and the parasympathetic neural network as ways of encouraging pregnant women to look within their souls akin to a confessional chamber, outside the diagnostic relation to an OB/GYN, or a clinical or hospital setting.

Gary Trudeau, Doonesbury, March 12, 2012

The alleged “heartbeat” that pregnant mothers are compelled to listen in clinics parallels formation of vascular muscles and conductive cells, but it seems a stretch to posit a “heart” or “beat” before the existence of coronary vessels, or cardiac chambers that are connected to the aorta and pulmonary trunk. Yet the mandated encounter with this sonographic registration has changed the clinical setting to a prescriptive encounter that erases any agency or identity of the pregnant woman.

By framing the clinical encounter in ways that serve a legal strategy based on the determination of embryonic cardiac activity–termed a “heartbeat” to invest the embryo with legal personhood–to cast abortions performed beyond six weeks as medical malpractice, and grounds for determining legal personhood or agency in order to establish its criminality against a public good.

At this early stage in pregnancy, the almost visual illusion of the “heartbeat” located in the embryo without any set chambers in the fetal pole that suggests the viability of the pregnancy, but any motion in the forming organ is entirely transmitted from maternal blood flow, her heart beat and her respiration, as much as grounds to invest personhood in the embryo. The visual illusion however tugs on heartstrings to reduce pregnant women’s right to terminate pregnancy or seek an abortion. The reduced threshold of access to abortion compromises privacy, effectively converting the ultrasound developed for maternal health to a mandated event to procure to legal evidence of a crime that would not be admissible in court, focussing on the fetus as a living being by obscuring that the pole or embryo lacks viability outside the mother’s body–and that its cardiac activity is likely triggered only by the mother’s own. The glee with which Gov. Abbott tweeted his pleasure at the passage of the law was a publicity stunt, however, appealing to his supporters as a protection of freedoms–not a dramatic curtailing of public health–and adopting a particularly viscous policy of placing undue burdens on women, by dressing the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Foregrounding the heartbeat obscured promoting heightened public health risks. Abbott celebrated on Twitter long awaited restrictions on abortion as affirming that “the most precious freedom of all is life itself,” imagining that the overturn of Roe v. Wade and “abortions will be outlawed in Texas. Texas will always foster a culture of life.” As it moved from the medical sphere of the ultrasound to the popular debate, the heartbeat afforded a wildly popular symbol of a social media rallying cry among anti-abortion activists to secure the rights of the unborn, difficult to imagine as either rationale or logically organized, but which gained logic in its slippage of science to popular debate; the heartbeat was removed from indices of fetal development to an unformed squiggle in need of popular defense.

@GregAbott_TX, September 1, 2021

The recent adaptation or cooptation of a whistleblowers’ right to sue any entity committing wrongdoing in any abetting or facilitating of the performance of abortion beyond six weeks distributed agency of legal enforcement as a moral economy of fetal development, outside professional judgement or medical ethics; the law, SB 8, overconfidently casts residents of Texas as District Attorneys and embryologists, based on non-expert acceptance of a cardiac activity, no matter how small, as sufficient grounds to detect legal personhood in need of state protection, as if trumping medical needs by a moral sense. The primacy of precepts of anti-abortion activists was revealed by anti-abortion protestors who proudly held signs in Fayetteville AK, affirming identification of a “Pro-Life” county “committed to the protection of all lives, including the lives of the unborn.”

NWA congregations hold prayer service outside of Rogers Planned Parenthood  clinic
Fayetteville, AR/September 12, 2021

The increased elision of personal judgement and justice delegated the function of a District Attorney to prosecute it as a crime among all who were convinced of the criminality of helping pregnant women seek an abortion–dramatically circumscribing their access to prenatal health care. The state “law” all but erased or abolished legal agency of the pregnant woman, by treating the ultrasound developed for diagnostic measures as as a determinant factor in assessing criminality, and striking fear into abortion providers for opening themselves to civil suits for violating state law–even as they were only following federal precedent and constitutional statute. Having since 2017 banned insurance coverage of abortion in medical plans, new state anti-abortion laws, currently would further restrict access and place additional burden on women’s rights to health care. In denying the right to health care, and indeed attacking the court for “imposing” an “amorphous ‘undue burden standard” on the state, it is argued, the court itself “invented” and “imposed” a non-existent “right to abortion” without constitutional grounds–although the Constitution, when written in 1787, extends women exactly no rights, if it seeks to “promote the general welfare” or “domestic tranquility. In using the amorphous criteria of the “heartbeat” to allege public dangers of performing abortion beyond six weeks–although over 92% of abortions performed are in the first thirteen weeks, and pregnancy is hard to detect at six weeks–the very question of agency is blurred beyond specificity, as the legally mandated ultrasounds for all seeking an abortion for preserving maternal or fetal health are transformed to a mode of legal surveillance.

Any notion of a “burden” is denied by shifting attention to the index of the heartbeat as a standard of maternal care. In the decade since the Supreme Court found that restrictions on admittance to abortion clinics an “undue burden” on all women, the recent enactment of State Bill 8 shifts the onus of prosecuting abortions from state regulations, sanctioning all citizens–rather than state officials–by affirming the civil rights of any citizen to sue all abetting–or providing–an abortion, implicitly holding that this does not constitute an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to seek an abortion before fetal viability. As Legislative Director of Texas Right to Life, Seago had boasted of his place in this new geography of medical constraints as he framed local ordinances prohibiting abortion in some thirty Texan towns progress toward formulation on a state-wide level: with the assistance of a skilled litigator who had brought many cases of medical malpractice, Texas’ former Solicitor General Mitchell claimed shielded from judicial review and urged judges leave “the abortion umpiring business.” He seemed far more comfortable in proscribing restrictive statutes without any biomedical support: while the option remained squarely in the court of women able to “control their reproductive lives,” an assertion both without grounds and that limits women’s agency to their control of sexualized bodies; to curtail the “false right” of abortion, SB8 invited citizens to bring civil suits against those “abetting” abortion for women failing to show sexual restraint, offering immaterial guidance for setting restrictive limits on abortion’s performance by the fetal “heartbeat” that ultrasounds revealed to the observer willing to find in them evidence of human life.

The restrictive nature of SB 8 imputed actual criminality to the performing abortion, removing its performance from the realm of a pregnant woman’s privacy or from health care by returning it to a question of public good. The hopes to return to a landscape of an era when the extraction of a fetus was illegal, and locating the sanctity of life on a cellular level. In expanding restrictions far beyond the thirty Texan city councils that now self-identify as “sanctuary cities for the unborn,” legal action is now invited against involving themselves in any strategy that “aids and abets an abortion.” In ways that ingeniously appropriate the near forgotten geographical divide of contested “sanctuary cities” that refused to dedicate local resources to enforce federal immigration laws, that had provoked the wrath not only of Texas’ Attorney General, the “sanctuary cities of the unborn” suggest a new divide for the nation, and a hope to politicize divisions with little benefit to public well-being or tranquillity.

Reflecting a recent politics of opposition around immigration rights, the re-designation of “sanctuary” cities use a rhetoric of religious protection to curtail abortion may provoke a similar national divide, and to seek a newly receptive Supreme Court open to restrict the pregnant women’s constitutional rights to privacy.

The re-appropriation of so recently divisive a term seems perversely designed to create a shift in the national landscape had precedent as a form of polarization–and polarization is something Texas does well. Immigration laws were pushed back on in the Trump Era even in the “red” state by Dallas, Austin, and Houston, who, siding with families of immigrant populations, had proudly declared themselves to be sanctuary cities by refusing federal executive orders on immigration that were hardly democratic laws with legal precedent, taking municipal funds off the table for their enforcement. The newly declared largely rural “sanctuary cities for the unborn” reveal a counter-geography of sorts, echoing the state legislature’s banning of any city to comply with federal immigration law, not assuming they would not face legal challenges, but almost inviting them.

RIGHT TO LIFE: 'Sanctuary Cities for the Unborn' could face legal  challenges | KXAN Austin
Rural Sanctuary Cities Affirming Right-to-Life/KXAN Austin

But although It is tempting to see SB 8 as an issue of red states like Texas–or the south–perhaps because the rift in standards of health care are so extreme–but we would do well to regard those “red” states are grounds for battle lines for staging a struggle against abortion nationwide. For in 2021, eleven states adopted ninety laws meant to restrict women’s access to abortion — the most in a single year since the 1973 Roe v. Wade established fetal “viability” outside the womb as a threshold for women’s right to abortion.  “Heartbeat” laws posit a “fetal heartbeat” as the index that would mandate ultrasounds for abortions, no matter at what stage of gestation, to determine “according to standard medical practice, whether the fetus has a detectable heartbeat,” even if the putative beat is a legal creation more than a medical one, and the “flutter” perceived in sonograms suggest the first cardiac cells in an embryo firing electrical signals, more than they map onto an individual, and has no bearing on the viability of the heart, the embryo, or the pregnancy. Yet the legal fiction of a “heartbeat” is presented as a technologically modern registration, able to reframe constitutional rights and health laws and the legal high ground, even as abortion rates had fallen nationwide.

The shifting landscape of reproductive health care is not without a clear echo of the way states “stood their ground” in local refusal to accept federal health care funds, akin to separatism–leading a full twenty-six of the lower forty-eight states to outright exclude insurance coverage for abortion in medical marketplaces.

Circumscribed Insurance Coverage of Abortion in ACA Marketplaces, 2020/Kaiser Family Foundation
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