Applauding the killing of a scientist should scare us all

On the morning of January 11, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, the deputy head of Iran’s uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, was in his car on his way to work when he was blown up by a magnetic bomb attached to his car door. He was 32 and married with a young son. He was not armed, or anywhere near a battlefield.

Since 2010 three other Iranian nuclear scientists have been killed in similar circumstances, including Darioush Rezaeinejad, a 35-year-old electronics expert shot dead outside his daughter’s nursery in Tehran last July. But instead of outrage, we have been treated to undisguised glee.

“On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear programme in Iran turn up dead,” said Rick Santorum, then the Republican nomination candidate, in October. “I think that’s a wonderful thing, candidly.”

On the day of Roshan’s death Israel’s military spokesperson, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, said: “I don’t know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I certainly am not shedding a tear.” This sentiment was echoed by the historian Michael Burleigh in the Daily Telegraph: “I shall not shed any tears whenever one of these scientists encounters the unforgiving men on motorbikes.”

These “men on motorbikes” have been described as assassins. But assassination is just a more polite word for murder. Indeed, our politicians and their securocrats cloak the premeditated, lawless killing of scientists in Iran, civilians in Pakistan and politicians in Palestine in an array of euphemisms: terminations, targeted killings, drone strikes.

Their purpose is to inure us to such state-sponsored violence against foreigners. In his acclaimed book On Killing, retired United States army officer Dave Grossman examines mechanisms that enable us not just to ignore but even cheer such killings: cultural distance (“such as racial and ethnic differences that permit the killer to dehumanise the victim”), moral distance (“the kind of intense belief in moral superiority”) and mechanical distance (“the sterile, Nintendo-game unreality of killing through a TV screen, thermal sight, sniper sight or some other kind of mechanical buffer that permits the killer to deny the humanity of his victim”).

Thus Western liberals who fall over one another to condemn the death penalty for murderers as state-sponsored murder fall quiet as their states kill nuclear scientists, terror suspects and alleged militants in faraway lands with impunity. Human- rights lawyer and anti-drone activist Clive Stafford Smith says a “targeted killing is just the death penalty without due process”.

Cognitive dissonance abounds. To torture a terror suspect, for example, is morally wrong; to kill him, video-game style, with a missile fired from a remote-controlled drone, is morally justified. Crippled by fear and insecurity, we have sleepwalked into a situation in which governments have arrogated to themselves the right to murder their enemies abroad.

We are not only talking about foreigners. Take Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamist preacher, al-Qaeda supporter and US citizen. On September 30 last year a CIA drone killed him and another US citizen, Samir Khan. Two weeks later another drone attack killed Awlaki’s 21-year-old son, Abdul-Rahman. Neither father nor son were ever indicted, let alone tried for or convicted of committing a crime. Both citizens were assassinated by the US government in violation of the Fifth Amendment: “No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law.”

An investigation by Reuters last October noted how, under the Barack Obama administration, US citizens accused of involvement in terrorism can now be “placed on a kill or ­capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions.

“There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.”

Should “secret panels” and “kill lists” be tolerated in a liberal democracy governed by the rule of law? Did the founders of the US intend its president to be judge, jury and executioner? Whatever happened to checks and balances? Imagine the response of our politicians and pundits to a campaign of assassinations against Western scientists conducted by, say, Iran or North Korea. When it comes to state-sponsored killings, the double standard is brazen.

“Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them,” George Orwell said, “and there is almost no kind of outrage — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”

But how many more of our values will we shred in the name of security?

Once we have allowed our governments to order the killing of fellow citizens, fellow human beings, in secret, without oversight or accountability, what other powers will we dare to deny them?

This is not complicated; there are no shades of grey here. Do we disapprove of car bombings and drive-by shootings, or not? Do we condemn state-sponsored, extrajudicial killings as acts of pure terror, no matter where in the world or on whose orders they occur? Or do we shrug our shoulders, turn a blind eye and risk descending into lawlessness? —

Keep the powerful accountable

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