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David Cameron, Drones and the Return of Capital Punishment

I posted the following article on Christian Today this week.  You can get the original here.

I have to say that I have been surprised by the vehemence of much of the response.  I have no objection to Christians and others disagreeing with what I say and seeking to correct me.  I could well be wrong.  But what really bothers me is the way that some Christians accuse me of being some died in the wool liberal, and some non-Christians accuse me of being some died in the wool Christian!   I have been saddened by those who rejoice in the death of other human beings and even argue ‘we have to terrorise them worse than they terrorise us’, ‘I don’t care if every member of ISIS was killed’.  Such bloodlust is actually quite frightening.  So I would be grateful if people who wished to comment on this article, did so with some respect for every human made in the image of God, and actually sought to engage with the arguments and reasons put forward.  This has not been a pleasant experience….

Anyway here is the text of the article…feel free to comment if you wish….

On August 21 this year, a Rubicon was crossed. David Cameron ordered the summary execution of two British citizens, Ruhul Amin from Aberdeen, and Reyaad Khan from Cardiff. Both were killed by RAF drone strikes in Syria. The justification for these attacks are obvious and I suspect most Britons will accept them. In my view they are a dangerous precedent and further evidence of Britain moving away from its Christian traditions and ethos.

There are many disturbing aspects to this case. First, it was an execution without trial or due process. Second, it took place not because of crimes already committed, but because of ‘intended crime’. Cameron stated, “their intention was the murder of British citizens. So on this occasion we took action”. Third, it took place in a country which we are not at war with, and which the British Parliament voted against taking military action against.

Now of course the Prime Minister will justify the action by saying that he can be trusted and that he should be allowed to order executions based upon the best available evidence. And many people in the UK, including many Christians, will go along with that because we buy into the simplistic narrative that ISIS are the bad guys and we are the nice good people. But like all simplistic narratives there is an enormous danger in following it. Do we really want to grant to the British Prime Minister the right to be judge, jury and executioner all on his own? Should he have the right to order the execution of British citizens (or indeed any citizens) without trial? In a ‘normal’ war it is countries that we are at war with, and there are basic rules of warfare to be followed. With ISIS and Islamic terrorism that of course does not apply – but will suspending the normal rules of war, or indulging in state sponsored execution, not just give to ISIS what they are looking for, further justification for their hatred and distrust of the West?

And there is a further disturbing aspect to this precedent. When does it stop? If we are expected to trust the British Prime Minister to act as judge, jury and executioner in this regard, why not in other respects? What if one day, down the road, the British government decided that those who did not accept ‘British values’ were a threat to the state and could be dealt with in such a summary way?

The pillars of the British state are democratic rule of parliament, with the head of state being a Christian monarch, and an independent, fair legal and judicial system. Over the past decades there has been a constant undermining of the authority of parliament, and a subsequent increase in the power of the ‘executive’. It is also questionable how much the independence and fairness of the judicial system has been preserved. This attack undermines both parliament and the judicial system. Parliament had already voted against military action in Syria, and I don’t believe that ordering an execution of British citizens in another country because of information that they intended to attack Britain is legal.

The trouble is that in order to justify this, the Prime Minister and others, will point to the horrors of ISIS. Indeed. But to respond to horror with something that is also horrific, is at best a naïve approach. And our government’s naivety has already cost this country and the world dear. We thought that actions such as invading Iraq, supporting the Arab Spring and bombing Libya would result in peace loving democracies being established in North Africa and the Middle East. Look at the consequences of that! Do we seriously think that adopting a policy of summary execution at the whim of the Prime Minister is going to turn out any better?

Earlier this week we were informed that Cameron regarded those who opposed same-sex marriage as ‘Neanderthals’. I regard those who think that if you just hit those who threaten to club you with a bigger club, that is somewhat Neanderthal!

There is enormous confusion at the heart of government, and a dangerous reliance on their own omniscience and omnipotence. The photo of Aylan Kurdi, drowned while crossing the Mediterranean, is credited with changing British policy on refugees. If only life were that simple. What many people seem to have forgotten is that the wee boy was a Kurd. The Western powers just signed an agreement with the Turks to use their airbases and to let them do airstrikes into Iraq. So far the Turkish air force have flown three strikes against ISIS, and 300 strikes against the Kurds, where doubtless more little Kurdish children have died. But we won’t see their photos on the front of the Sun. And if we begin this policy of summary execution by drones doubtless there will be other children caught in the crossfire, whose names and photos we will not see.

Military drones cost millions of pounds and running them costs tens of thousands. Meanwhile the government says we can only afford to take 4,000 refuges per year (the Germans say they will take 500,000). We can’t afford to take refugees but we can afford to execute suspected terrorists in another country.

The Christian Church cannot, and should not want to, run government. But we can and should pray for prime ministers and those in authority. And in a free democratic society with a strong Christian tradition we should be the prophets who cry out to those in power – ‘not in our name’. Yes, welcome the refugees in our name, but don’t execute in our name.

David Robertson is Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland and a regular contributor to Christian Today.


  1. Some of us to try to engage with you and your arguments in a reasonably way. And are routinely ignored.

    Anyway, just to say as a humanist I agree with most of what you wrote. Even the bit about neanderthals. Those against same-sex marriage should be free to hold that opinion without prejudice. However, they should not be allowed to prevent equality for those who do not share that belief. But that is not the main issue.

    Killing people without a clear, transparent and challengeable process is basically state sanctioned murder. If we do not have the death penalty for crimes committed how can we have a death penalty for crimes yet to be committed? We cannot allow prime ministers to make decisions in this way as we do not know how their predecessors acted or successors will act. This means there is no rule of law, just rule of prime ministers. Which is not a good thing.

  2. An interesting article. I’m in favour of the action that Cameron’s taken in this instance, given the clear threat posed by those killed, but the legal wrangling could set a dangerous precedent. There’s nothing inherently immoral about capital punishment for murder (Gen 9:6); there’s certainly something wrong with justice based on “intention”. Nothing good has ever come from that.

  3. David – completely agree with you on your position regarding the drone air strikes. I felt livid when driving my car and listening to the news about Cameron ordering air strikes, in Libya. I think that is what some would call a “holy anger”. I was delighted withe the unprecedented move of the commons turning him down with planned air strikes in Syria and find it astonishing that there have been British pilots doing that very thing flying American F-18’s and now with the drone attacks.

    What never ceases to amaze me is humanity’s appetite for war in spite of the lessons that history teaches about war.

    It’s all sounding a little Orwellian and 1984ish.

    I found it amusing to read you being described as a liberal – a light moment in the midst of it all. Obviously a comment from someone who does not know you well.

    I find the only ting preserving me form despair in this is knowing the power of prayer and that in the end God’s justice and righteousness with prevail with wars and rumours of wars being as a mother experiencing birth pains.

    May you and other public figures be empowered to be the voice and the conscience bringing reason in this that politicians will listen to on this. ‘Not in our name’ – amen to that.

  4. Thank you for your clear and godly reasoning. It has helped me clarify what my own position should be regarding this issue.

  5. Hi David.
    I think that much of the concern being expressed here in the UK is because we tend to operate a “terrorism as crime” model rather than “terrorism as war” and that we always seek to bring the terrorist to court. The 2002 Bush Doctrine is an expansion of the “terrorism as war” model and allows for preemptive strikes against States, groups or individuals. I don’t think one model is intrinsically better or more moral than another; each has its place depending on the circumstances. In this case I think the preemptive strike is morally justifiable, perhaps even necessary, because I think it is fair to say that the persons killed were known to be terrorists, that it was unlikely that they could be apprehended, tried and punished, and that in taking this course of action the lives of their future victims were saved. (This is part of an argument developed by Seumas Miller in his book ‘ Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: Ethics and Liberal Democracy’).

    As for the underlying principle of the Just War, Calvin says that “natural equity and the nature of the office dictate that princes must be armed not only to restrain the misdeeds of private individuals by judicial punishment, but also to defend by war the dominions entrusted to their safekeeping, if at any time they are under enemy attack.” He then goes on to comment that the reasons for war are the same as ever they were and that there is no reason that bars magistrates from defending their subjects, provided that they do not do so in “anger, hatred or burn with implacable severity” and have tried “everything else before recourse is had to arms.” Finally in doing so the magistrate should be “led by concern for the people alone and not be swayed by any private affection, otherwise they wickedly abuse their power.” (Institutes, 4.20.xi,xii).

    Bearing all this in mind I think the Prime Minister acted appropriately, proportionately and in the best interests of the people.


  6. Hi again David.

    Just a few more thoughts on what you wrote.

    You should bear in mind that what is happening in Syria today is a direct result of the failure of the West to act in 2013 when President Assad’s forces dropped to 1000kg of the nerve gas Sarin on the Ghouta district of Damascus. The Parliamentary debate was framed thus

    “The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): I beg to move,

    That this House:

    Deplores the use of chemical weapons in Syria on 21 August 2013 by the Assad regime, which caused hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries of Syrian civilians;

    Recalls the importance of upholding the worldwide prohibition on the use of chemical weapons under international law;

    Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on saving lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons;

    Notes the failure of the United Nations Security Council over the last two years to take united action in response to the Syrian crisis;”

    You will see that military action was only seen as part of a larger humanitarian response. The debate was lost and things got worse.

    You worry about the lack of trial and due process. For reasons I’ve already explained, such an event was unlikely to happen. But if you are in any way concerned about the rightness of the action taken, you should bear in mind that the encouragement, preparation and training in terrorist acts are offences under under the Terrorism Acts 2006 & 2000. These men were terrorists. By no stretch of the imagination was this a summary execution on the whim of a Prime Minister. Nor did he give a simplistic narrative. Such emotional rhetoric is unhelpful, inaccurate and dangerous.

    You worry about what will happen next and who will be the next victim? That is scaremongering. In their book “Terror in the Balance: Security, Liberty and the Courts” Posner and Vermeule note that such ratcheting-up simply doesn’t happen. Given that they write about the USA rather than the UK should give you some encouragement that it is less likely to happen here.

    You rightly say the world is a more complicated place than we imagine. So you shouldn’t conflate the war and migration. Not everyone heading for Europe is a genuine refugee. By suggesting that they are, you give yourself the opportunity to further criticise the Government for its refugee policy. You then compare the cost of drones with the cost of settling refugees. It’s a false comparison. Studies in the U.S. Show that the cost of buying and operating drones is far cheaper than fighter jets. For example the cost of running a drone is $3250 per hour compared with $16500 for a fighter. By making the false comparison you avoid discussing the actual cost of resettlement of refugees. Using government figures for 2011/12, housing costs alone are in the region of £7500 per person per annum, living allowances are about £1950 a year and then you have to factor in NHS costs and Education costs.

    Therefore I think the Prime Minister is right in being cautious in his approach to resettlement. You cannot cry “Not in My Name” for one thing and not the other.

    One final thought. The Guardian ran an article at the beginning of August this year showing that the real winners (pardon the expression) in the Syrian conflict have turned out to be the Syrian Kurds who now control a larger area than they ever have done. That being the case it would seem sensible to establish safe zones within that area for the protection of those fleeing the more dangerous areas.


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