A few Chickens and a Parrot

23 March 2017

In 1946, a year after the United States led the Allied invasion of Germany, a chicken farmer in North Carolina successfully sued the federal government for infringing his property rights. Thomas Causby’s complaint – that low-flying military aircraft were stressing his birds and preventing them from laying eggs – culminated in a Supreme Court ruling that has since become a benchmark of US law. In his judgment, Justice William Douglas struck an awkward balance, decreeing that a landowner owns “as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use”, while simultaneously overturning a medieval principle of Anglo-American law stating that property rights extend vertically “ad coelum et ad inferos” – literally, “to heaven and to hell”.

Causby’s chickens are now coming home to roost, as a pending court ruling looks set to establish precedent regarding the flight of commercial and recreational drones. David Boggs, a roofer from Kentucky, filed a suit after his neighbour, William Merideth, blew his $1,800 drone out of the sky with a shotgun. Merideth claimed the camera-equipped device was hovering above his property – and his daughter. Despite charges of wanton endangerment and criminal mischief, a judge ruled last year that he had a right to act as he did, prompting Boggs to appeal.

Irascible but not irrational, Merideth’s instinct to protect his family is understandable. What is indefensible, however, is the double standard by which it’s applied. Beneath the maverick bravura, Merideth’s self-styled “drone slayer” persona speaks to a widespread American hypocrisy: one that sees domestic property rights as sacrosanct, while upholding the government’s right to surveil and assail civilians abroad. The impact of drone warfare has been particularly pernicious in parts of Pakistan, where children are often afraid to play in the sunshine as the absence of cloud cover leaves them exposed to the aircrafts’ sensors.

The Merideth case also symbolises a deeper desire to reassert frontierism, and a libidinous urge to reclaim the manliness of war – when battles smelt of cordite and death peered down a barrel, not a screen. In this age of cyber-warfare, vigilante justice is glorified and demagoguery back in style: firepower before stealth; Bush’s doctrine over Obama’s; an F-15 Eagle instead of a Parrot AR.