To Kill or Not to Kill?

I don’t know anything about David Cameron’s nightmares but it wouldn’t surprise me if this was one of them.

Terrorists attack Britain. Amid the inevitable recrimination it turns out the perpetrators were British and orchestrated the attack from overseas. Furthermore, the security forces knew of the plot but bungled an opportunity to foil it by killing the men now known to have organised it. It turns out that the security services had doubts about the morality and legality of a preemptive strike against people who were not yet perpetrators but suspects. But now one thing is clear. The hesitation was fatal – the terrorists struck. The worst happened.

A beleaguered Prime Minister faces the wrath of the press, public, backbenchers and the opposition. In vain, the PM protests that it’s easy to be wise after the fact. The intelligence was not clear cut – the evidence may not have held up in a court of law. The men were British citizens and we don’t execute citizens, not even traitors. These men were suspects – we don’t kill suspects, we bring them to court.

None of it makes any difference.  No matter how reasonable the PM’s arguments are, the fact was something could have been done but it was not done.  Saturation media coverage of harrowing survivor and eyewitness accounts whip up a hurricane of public fury that threatens to bring down the entire government.  The PM’s authority is in tatters. His colleagues tell him he has to go. It’s either him or the Party. He accepts the inevitable and resigns. His Premiership is over as is his political career.

Consider another scenario that ends differently. Two British citizens have deserted the UK to fight for a foreign terrorist organisation and evidence emerges that they may be plotting an atrocity in the UK. The evidence is not clear cut and perhaps not all conceivable peaceful options have been considered. The dilemma is thus posed: to kill or not to kill? To kill is no easy decision, with all the possible consequences that might have. But to spare them carries the possibility that an opportunity to forestall a terrorist attack on UK soil is lost. At the back of the PM’s mind is just that nightmare scenario described above. It comes down to being better safe than sorry. The decision is taken to kill them.

This thought experiment is not a discussion about the rights and wrongs of drone strikes or whether it was right for Cameron to sanction the drone strike that killed two British citizens who joined the IS in Syria. It is not to say that the scenarios envisaged here actually happened in this case. It is to say that one cannot rule out that this is a possible real world dilemma that any British PM might face – indeed, that it might have happened.

I stress, I do not have possession of the relevant facts and mastery of the legal arguments to assess to what extent the strike that killed the two men was justified. But I am impatient with a certain line of thought among Cameron’s critics that is not even willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that there might have been such a dilemma. To take one example, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, wrote in the Huffington Post:

‘The Prime Minister was keen to shrug this [strike] off as perfectly legal, but since the debunking of 45-minute-away-WMD claims the British parliament, and indeed public, are less inclined to take these assurances of threat at face value.’

Of course, that pretext for invading Iraq was false and questions should be asked. But because the ‘45 minutes away from destruction’ pretext to invade Iraq was false, it does not follow that the terrorist threat is false. We know that the terrorist threat is no phantom threat. There have been plenty of foiled plots. Her post shows very little appreciation of such realities.

One does not have to shed crocodile tears for the two dead terrorists in order to ask the questions that should be asked in an open society about the ethics and legality of drone strikes. Neither should we simply accept politicians’ claims that terrorism is an ‘existential threat’ and allow them a free pass to circumscribe civil liberties or deny others the power to call them to account.

But the stubborn fact is that there is a terrorist threat. If the threat is real, then the sorts of dilemmas I have discussed are real-world possibilities. Therefore the question is not if it is wrong to kill terrorists summarily but when. This cannot be a question that only the lawyers have a right to answer. It is an intensely political question. In an ideal world, we would not have to ask it. But, of course, we don’t live in such a world.


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