That Particular Door to Hell

The national media has been a-buzz with the news of a young college student creating a gun-shooting drone. The device doesn't seem to break any laws, at least not in Connecticut, but it is mighty creepy and unsettling to local and national law enforcement. Of course, it's also nothing new. Unmanned aerial vehicles for combat use have a long history, from the  mid 1800s through WWII and into the 'modern' age. Just like their use for surveillance wasn't invented by Obama to stress out Tea Party conservatives.

The interesting thing about this story it that it's a perfect confluence of a couple of things that I've been wanting to talk about.

Some time back in 2013, I commented on RuneSoup that I'd been seeing a huge PR campaign for drones recently. They were being highlighted as innovative, helpful, and even cute in a series of ads and TV shows. They were being used to help the Top Gear cast scout upriver on one of their highly staged "adventures" and by hip sporting events to get great aerial footage for the viewing audience. At the same time, we were launching our drone strikes on targets in the Middle East. It was as if the media were trying to convince all of us that drones were our friends.

How the worm turns. Now, drones are increasingly seen as dangerous in the hands of the public. They are blocking firefighting aircraft, being called out by British police, and legislated against in many difference contexts. The message is always the same. In private hands, drones are bad. In the hands of the government, entertainment media, or our corporate overlords, they are awesome.

Sounds like some fine-tuning of the message going on here. And it also seems that technology has finally caught up to the danger zone. After all, remote control aircraft are nothing new. My husband remembers friends of his step-dad who were big-time remote control hobbyists. They were attaching cameras to their aircraft back in the late 70s. But only now that both the drone and imaging technology have caught up to the point where these devices can be real trouble does anyone seem to care. It's the same as making mix tapes. People have been copying cassette tapes for decades before the the modern DRM panic and witch hunt. The difference is that in the old days, each copy lost quality. It wasn't as good as the original. So it was illegal, but no one cared. Then along came digital music and suddenly it was a crime worth enforcing.

The gun-toting drone is the logic conclusion of this long path, from the US military using unmanned balloons to drop bombs to modern spy and assassination drones. It was only a matter of time before someone, and wouldn't it have to someone who exactly matches the profile of the domestic terrorist (young, male, white, and conveniently under arrest), gave it a try. We don't know that he's the first civilian to do this of course, but we absolutely know he won't be the last.

Because once you crack open a particular door like this, there's no going back. Before Bannister ran the 4-minute mile, it was considered near-impossible. But as soon as he did it, other runners followed. And Tenzing Norgay and that Hillary fellow had to climb the Great Mother mountain to demonstrate that white dudes could do it (because clearly no altitude-acclimated native Sherpas could have done so before then, duh). It's the same with many kinds of achievements, from athletic, to intellectual, to technological. The impossible becomes suddenly possible. Once someone does it, it's like humanity experiences a sudden shift -- previously it wasn't possible, and now it it. Psychologically, we believe it, we know it, so we do it.

Those example are positive ones. They don't have to be.

The title of this post comes from a Snopes article about the 1982 Tylenol murders in Chicago... the first murder by tampering. I'm old enough to have hazy memories of the nation-wide recall and general climate of fear that this caused. Years ago, I was researching something and came across the Snopes article. It talked about the original case (which has never been officially solved) but also the copycat cases that came afterward. The article concludes with this statement (emphasis mine):

"The 1982 Tylenol murders kicked off a lot of nastiness. It's as if evil-minded people were just waiting for that particular door to hell to swing open so they could rush through. Some chose to randomly insert foreign objects or dangerous substances into formerly trustworthy products, while others tried to use the senselessness of the Tylenol murders to cover up specifically-targeted crimes of their own.

We live with the Tylenol legacy even to this day; you have only to visit a local supermarket or pharmacy to see evidence of this. Tamper-proof packaging has become the norm and safety seals on even the most innocuous items are to be expected. As a nation, we lost our innocence in 1982." 

-- Barbara "fools paradise lost" Mikkelson

The article, and particularly that statement in bold above have haunted me ever since.

I've heard it suggested that the reason there are copycat crimes is that the original criminal gives other's ideas. But I don't think it's that simple. I think it's that evil is contagious, just the same way that violence or panic is contagious in a mob. There are currents of violence and destruction just as there are currents of cooperation and love. When someone taps into a particular current, others find it easier to tap in as well. 

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