So David Allen Green (@jackofkent) wrote a very good piece about the legal questions around yesterday’s  government announcement that it had used a drone to kill a British citizen fighting in Syria for ISIS. I’m not a lawyer, but his reasoning seems eminently sound.

There are also, I think, sound moral reasons why a government shouldn’t do things like this – even when the person they are targeting is a very bad man planning to do very bad things. I have no problem with people like ISIS getting a good hard smack around the head – they are murderous wretches whose threat isn’t to the West (they best they can hope to inflict on us are relative pinpricks) but to their neighbours – and the poorest and most vulnerable of their neighbours at that. At the same time, I think the decision by the government to take on the positions of judge, jury and executioner on a case like this opens a moral trapdoor that could swallow us all.

But another good reason for thinking that this action is wrong is political.

Legitimate governments and regimes of terror both ultimately derive power from their control of the resources of coercion over people in their sphere of control. Put bluntly, they can force those who live beneath their rule to do what they’re told or they can impose punishment.

The difference between legitimate government and regimes of terror is that under legitimate governance force is restrained (however imperfectly) by transparent legal rules and a system of appeal to which the individual has access – whether it is knowing how much to pay and how long to stay to avoid a parking fine or using every avenue of appeal to fight against a conviction. In a regime of terror such rules may not exist or may be applied in a way which allows no appeal. When states act as the British government has acted – by taking the decision in secret to murder someone without a trial or right of appeal – they make it harder to maintain the distinction between legitimacy and terror.

In March 1988 the SAS shot three Northern Irish republicans on Gibraltar – it is the best known incident (but far from the only one – the Stalker Inquiry looked at cases going back to 1982 and similar incidents took place until at least 1990) in a policy of “shoot-to-kill” that was operated by the British government in Northern Ireland at the time. The British state made a conscious choice to kill Republican terrorists rather than to deal with them in the courts. The policy was crude and stupid for at least three political reasons:

  1. it made martyrs out of those it killed and, therefore, made them, and their cause, more attractive than either deserved;
  2. it undermined the distinction between a government enforcing the rule of law and those who act outside the law – thus conceding to the terrorists a key objective, to make their struggle seem legitimate and morally equivalent to the actions of the state – it allowed them to portray the British actions as simply terror in fancier uniforms; and
  3. it weakened the state’s action against terrorism by creating an atmosphere of secrecy and distrust in which some parts of the state were devoting time and energy towards investigating the illegal (or extra-legal) actions of another. It thus reduced both the effectiveness and the apparent legitimacy of the fight against terrorists.

So, even when setting aside the convincing legal and moral reasons to oppose the use of summary execution by the state, there are strong political reasons why a government should avoid putting itself in the position where it appears to be acting outside its own, or international, legal frameworks when confronted by those using terror as their weapon. The simple truth is that such actions are counter-productive, they undermine government legitimacy and concede key advantages to the opposition.

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