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Michel Foucault’s Theory of Panopticism: General Overview

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Wars occur every day around the world. A battle that is practically unknown to many, is the drone war. This may sound interesting if you’re a science fiction buff, but unfortunately, this war is no tale of fiction. In an article called “Merry Christmas America! Let’s Remember the Children who Live in Fear of Our Killer Drones” by The Intercept from 2019, the authors discuss the drone wars and how the political powers at the time of the strikes did not hesitate to murder many innocent lives or show any kind of remorse or regret for their actions. These drone wars have occurred in many Islamic countries as a result of the terrorist groups who have come from them in the past. There are two philosophers whose theories relate to this article, Niccoló Machiavelli and his theory of the ends justifying the means, and Michel Foucault’s theory of Panopticism. Although these airstrikes are catastrophic, Machiavelli would have the same conclusion as the president. This being that is the ends justify the means or the actions are valid for the end result. Machiavelli would believe that these airstrikes will result in peace, which is why the civilian casualties would not phase him. Foucault created the theory of Panopticism, which is used to instill fear and is based on Jeremy Bentham’s prison, Panopticon. In this prison, there was round-the-clock surveillance, thus the prisoners never know when they are being watched which inculcates fear in the prisoners and results in positive behavior, seeing as they could be punished at any moment without seeing it coming. This is similar to how the drones survey the area without the locals knowing when they’re being watched nor when they are about to get murdered by the United States government. Both Machiavelli and Foucault would agree with this article and each other as well as the U.S drone wars for different reasons. Equally malevolent reasons but beneficial in that one theory results in a peaceful conclusion and the other instills fear and thus good behavior.

As previously stated, in this article it states that the drone wars have been occurring since George W. Bush was president, and was inaugurated in 2001. One of the first attacks by an armed U.S. drone took place in Afghanistan in February 2002 (Swain and Schwarz 2020). The United States has been targeting many Islamic countries in order to attempt to assassinate the alleged terrorist groups in those countries. The individuals who are targeted by the drones are unaware of their imminent death until it is too late for them to protect themselves. Equally as tragic to note is the fact that the murdered civilians were almost always the result of misidentification. One instance was when Obama thought they saw Osama Bin Laden on one of the drone’s footage, which resulted in them bombing three men and there being three innocent civilian casualties on their hands. From 2009 to 2015 the United States killed around 2,436 people in various locations such as Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. Between 64 and 116 were civilians (Swain and Schwarz 2020). Throughout the years, many of political candidates have avoided questions regarding drone warfare. I believe they would lose many of their voters if they stated their real opinions on the subject. Those opinions being their lack of care or remorse for the thousands of innocent lives they’ve taken and continue to take. The U.S. has conducted 5,425 airstrikes [so far in 2019], five times as many [as in previous years]. In the month of September, the U.S. upped the pace to almost 40 airstrikes per day (Swain and Schwarz 2020). The article concluded with a statement on how we should open our eyes to see the catastrophic violence that is occurring around the world as a result of the United States government. Also, they attempt to key into our emotions to get the message across by telling the reader, “try to imagine being surrounded by your family, all of you filled with acid anxiety about the buzzing far overhead, the persistent staring eye above your home, that may at any moment obliterate you and everything you love (Swain and Schwarz 2020). Therefore, the authors seem clearly against the drone wars and are using their writing as a platform to make humans see the destruction that the individuals who we are supposed to trust have caused.

Niccoló Machiavelli was an Italian philosopher, politician, and diplomat (Garside, Lavery, and Wells 2019). He was born in 1469 and passed away in 1527 in Italy. Machiavelli wrote a novel known as The prince and it talks about the means in which to attain and remain in power. In this novel, he discusses the idea of one’s ends justifying their means. By this, he means that no matter how severe one’s actions are, if the conclusion is ultimately beneficial, the actions are justified. This idea leads me to believe that Machiavelli would agree with the drone wars; they may cause thousands of innocent casualties, but it may result in peace. Seeing as the article makes reference to a point in time when Obama’s government shot down three harmless locals, believing one of them to be Osama Bin Laden, it would appear that they are attempting to eliminate terrorist groups such as the Al-Qaeda. This is something Machiavelli would agree with, considering their end result would justify their actions in his eyes. Although Machiavelli would agree with the ideas that the article lays out, he would not agree with the author’s actual words, as they view these deaths and fights as useless or harmful. In The Prince, Machiavelli describes different methods in which to attain power, these methods are when, either by some wicked or nefarious ways, one ascends to the principality (Garside, Lavery and Wells 2019). Machiavelli is referring to gaining power, however, this can also be looked at as doing villainous deeds in order to achieve peace. Similarly, Foucault would agree with the devious acts, however, Foucault is looking to instill fear thus creating good. Whereas Machiavelli wants to remove evil in order to attain power or good.

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Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who lived from 1926 to 1984. He theorized the idea of Panopticism. This came from Jeremy Bentham’s prison known as Panopticon, a prison in which the inmates are being observed all day, every day. This creates an environment of fear and thus, good behavior. Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and many other countries are currently in a state of Panopticism, with their every move been observed by the United States government’s drones. It is described as an enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point, in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded (Garside, Lavery, and Wells 2019). Similarly, the people of many Islamic countries are being recorded and observed without even knowing. Therefore their actions are then carefully decided as the U.S government has instilled a sort of fear with the drones and how they’ve killed thousands of innocent civilians. The individuals who are targeted by these drones do not know that they are going to die until it is too late, thus, they are in a state of fear at all times. When Trump was elected, a documentary was released regarding drone warfare. This documentary showed a man named Daniel, who, as a former signals intelligence analyst, describes on camera his deep frustration with the inability to really tell who was killed in these drone strikes (Swain and Schwarz 2020). Foucault would not have the same concern as these death create more fear and ultimately more power for the individual administering these attacks.

Personally, I think drone warfare seems unnecessary. Although I believe that observing locations that cause a threat to one’s country is important to avoid putting us in danger, it is pointless and cruel to take innocent people’s lives on a whim. These drones can be weaponized, however, they should only be activated if the government is 100 percent sure that their target is who they think it is and that the target is a threat.

Ultimately, drone warfare has caused an abundance of loss and continues to take the lives of innocent people. Many individuals, including myself, would agree that the U.S. government needs to limit the use of drones for the purpose of causing harm to other people. On the other hand, philosophers like Michel Foucault and Niccoló Machiavelli would believe the opposite. They both would believe the drone wars are necessary for creating peace and gaining power. These individuals would get along as one believes drones create fear and thus peace, whereas the other believes that the drones remove threats and again creates peace. Machiavelli discusses his theory of the ends justifying the means, in other words, no matter the severity of the actions, so long as it results in a good conclusion, the actions are accepted. As previously stated, Machiavelli would view civilian casualties as inevitable in order to create a safe country. Foucault would view drone warfare as a power tactic. With his theory of Panopticism, the drones would instill a sort of fear that would result in power and peace.

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Michel Foucault’s Theory of Panopticism: General Overview. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from
“Michel Foucault’s Theory of Panopticism: General Overview.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
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