Nerve gases in Salisbury, drones in Syria: is there a moral difference? | Simon jenkins
In 2015, a British student from Cardiff, Reyaad Khan, was killed in Syria by an RAF drone bomb, presumably “flown” from Lincolnshire. A House of Commons report later admitted that he was “planning and instigating” terrorist attacks in Britain, but could not find out how imminent the attacks were or the legal basis for his assassination. His British associate, Junaid Hussain, was killed by an American drone. Two years later, Hussain’s widow, Sally Jones, and their 12-year-old son were also devastated. No trial has preceded these executions of British citizens on foreign soil. They died by executive action for posing a threat to national security. If we assume that someone in Moscow took the same view on Russian spy Sergei Skripal, what is the difference?
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson hinted this week that Britain is now a victim of Russian “acts of war”, including cyberattacks. He hinted that if the Skripal affair was blamed on the Kremlin, he would “revisit the sanctions.” He is right that the murder of anyone on a British street is terrible and, if sanctioned by a foreign power, is, in diplomatic jargon, “unacceptable”. But murder is a criminal act against individuals. It’s silly to mistake it for an act of war.
Khan and Hussain were apparently involved in a lot of savagery in Syria and in terrorist plots in Britain. Yet there was no indication that killing them was the only way to prevent further crimes. Hussain’s wife appears to have been extremely rude on social media. But Britain is not at war with Syria – any more than Russia is at war with Britain.
The fact that governments are going around the world killing people without legal process violates all international laws, although there is not much that can be done about it. But for a British government to kill its own citizens without trial defies Magna Carta. When, in 2011, President Obama authorized the drone execution in Yemen of US citizen and al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, it sparked outrage as an attack on American freedom. Obama asserted that Awlaki “poses a continuing and imminent threat to the persons or interests of the United States.” The result has been years of legal litigation, the case championed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Times, nothing less.
In Britain, the murders of Khan and the Husseins sparked no outcry, just a whisper from the opposition. We were simply told that 21 passports had been revoked from anonymous Britons, presumably to make them vulnerable to drone killings. This suggests that the Home Office has accepted that a passport should confer judicial protection. The absence of any legal debate over drones is a sure sign of Whitehall’s bad conscience.
Do such doubts appear in the Ministry of Defense? In December Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson advocated the drone killing of “all” British citizens on the wrong side in the wars in the Middle East. The implication is that British citizens abroad cannot consider themselves immune from extrajudicial killings by their own government, if they meet with government disapproval. Does this include gangsters on the Costa Brava?
These two sagas can fall under the category of small earthquakes, few deaths. What is indefensible is the hypocrisy on the British side. Both are examples of the arrogance of power that takes the law in hand.
I imagine that Vladimir Putin and his henchmen regard defector spies like Skripal as “enemies of the state” wherever they live. Whether Skripal was the beneficiary of a spy swap would have hardly mattered in what appears to be a sordid vendetta. Putin would hardly need to wink for him to be targeted. This is why it seems unnecessary to respond to his machismo with the parliamentary exaltation of the British Foreign Secretary. A Salisbury park bench is not the invasion of Poland.
Proportionately, the drone killings are much larger. Britain is not threatened by Syria or Iraq. We bombed these countries largely at the behest of the Americans, as an alternative to a painful engagement of troops on the ground. If that means demolishing an entire block (and everyone in it) to take out a sniper, so be it. For the British government, at least the British soldiers were not in danger. It is estimated that around 6,000 civilians have been killed by coalition bombs in the past three years alone.
I feel the real difference between Syria and Salisbury is sadder. This is because we consider that killing from the air is somehow more “legitimate” than killing on the ground. The drone is clean, digital, hi-tech, “targeted”, even if it slaughters innocent people in the process. Since faulty technology can be blamed if missiles are missing, death in the air is somehow more acceptable than ground killings by “terrorists.” In fact, we’re back to the old maxim that the AK-47 is the poor man’s B-52. But the AK-47 is at least more precise – just like the Russian poison. If Moscow had used a British drone against Skripal, it could have done to Salisbury Cathedral what drones did to ancient sites in Mesopotamia.
In just three and a half years, UK taxpayers have spent £ 1.75 billion bombing towns owned by Isis. The cost of the bombs alone (£ 268million) is more than what was spent on British humanitarian aid in Iraq. These drones have now been “at war” for 10 years. Since they are considered safe (on our side) and “hyper-asymmetric”, they can go anywhere, anyone wants. They show no respect for law or jurisdiction. They are strictly foreign policy for psychopaths. By comparison, Putin in Salisbury looks like a weakling.