On the Weaponization of Sight
A sniper spots an enemy soldier a mile away, aiming an RPG at an approaching convoy. The sniper fires. A bullet leaves his gun at more than twice the speed of sound, closing the mile-gap between shooter and target in a blistering 1.75 seconds. In this case, however, 1.75 seconds is simply not fast enough—the enemy soldier manages to fire his RPG before he is killed.
The sniper rifle’s telescopic sight transforms the gaze that passes through it. The act of seeing, when performed through the sight of a weapon, is done in service to the weapon itself. Even the very word sight is appropriated by the weapon. A person loses agency over his sense of sight when he gazes into a rifle scope. Looking becomes tainted, weaponized. No mere observation can occur through the glass of a telescopic sight. The crosshairs never disappear—Is this your target? Is this your target? Even when lowered, the weapon retains ownership of its wielder’s sense of sight. When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. With a weapon in hand, seeing becomes targeting.
The military apparatus wages war by spotting and eliminating targets as quickly as possible. In this age of continuous and complete surveillance, technology augments the weaponized gaze. Men and women, their sight conscripted in service to their weapons, gaze at battlefields an ocean away via Predator drones and satellite feeds. The military apparatus is within striking distance of perfecting its ability to spot targets. There remains only the problem of elimination: often imprecise, unreliable, and risky. It is far easier (and safer) to identify an enemy military installation via satellite than to carry out a bombing sortie on that installation. There is a time delay between the moment of target identification and force application, and it is within this delay that the complications of war proliferate.
Speed, therefore, is king. A weapon improves when it applies lethal force more quickly to its target. Since the era of modern warfare—ushered in by the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb—military research has worked to produce faster and faster weapons. The fruits of their labor were the thunderous, fire-breathing superweapons of the latter half of the twentieth century: the Bell X-1 supersonic jet and its pioneering pilot Chuck Yeager; Project Thor,1 an orbital hypervelocity weapons system; and the Lockheed SR-71 “Blackbird,” so fast that standard protocol against surface-to-air missiles was to simply accelerate.2 For some fifteen years now, the United States Navy has been developing an electromagnetic railgun capable of firing forty-pound hypervelocity projectiles at Mach 7.5. The logo of the research team bears the motto Velocitas eradico (I, [who am] speed, destroy). The railgun projectiles contain no explosives. Mach 7.5 is destructive enough.
The logical end of this military pursuit of fast weaponry is an infinitely fast weapon, able to deliver force to targets as soon as those targets are seen. It would unite the moments of identification and elimination. The soldier carrying such a weapon would exercise true weaponized sight—gazing down its barrel, eliminating targets as he sees them. His sight enters wholly into the weapon, subsumes it and is subsumed by it—Medusa, killing with the gaze.
The consequences of a world in which the sense of sight itself becomes weaponized are dire for those unfortunate enough to be seen: I see vehicles winding through Yemeni roads.3 I see a gun in his hands.4 Weaponized sight is asymmetrically wielded by belligerents fighting lopsided battles. All power rests with the observer; in civil society, we are all the observed. I see a young black man with his hands in his pockets. I see an illegal immigrant. I see a religious zealot. To be the target of weaponized sight is to have to contend with tragedies indistinguishable from acts of God. In this, our new world of surveillance and the killing gaze, safety lies not in numbers, rather in hiding, in invisibility. To stay alive, disappear—if you can. To see is to kill.
- The brainchild of a 1950s Boeing engineer, Jerry Pournelle. A network of satellites would orbit the earth, each controlling a bundle of telephone-sized tungsten rods. Firing the weapon would be as simple as dropping a rod at the right time. On impact, the nine-ton tungsten rod would be traveling nearly Mach 10—carrying kinetic energy equivalent to a dozen tons of TNT. The concept survives to this day, periodically revived under different names. The most lyrical of these new names: “Rods from God.&rdquo
- The SR-71 Blackbird is a plane of such extremes that even its most mundane facts are astounding. Over 4,000 missiles were fired at the Blackbird during its thrity two year tenure. Not one ever hit.
- In December of 2013, Abdallah Mabkhut al-Ameri and his bride, along with some sixty wedding guests, were driving in a convoy outside the Yemeni city of Rada’a. Four AGM-114 Hellfire missiles struck the vehicles, killing twelve and injuring two dozen more.
- In July 2007, an Apache helicopter crew allegedly saw people with AK-47s and RPGs walking around on the street below and opened fire, killing twelve. Two of the dead were Iraqis working for Reuters.
Tom Lin is a senior at Pomona College studying English