You’re nicked, my son.
There’s been a lot of to and fro regarding the reported death of Mohammed Emwazi. The basic argument against the action appears to be a wish that he would be captured alive, and tried.
I’m not particularly gleeful around the death – sure, I made some bad taste jokes – sue me; sure, I think if anyone deserves to die, “man who beheads aid workers on camera” would be pretty high up that list. And I’m glad he’s no longer going to be doing this. But I’m not going to particularly revel in it.
I will – however – revel in the stupidity of the argument against. As a vague aspiration? Yes, it’s fine. As a hope we can live in a world where it happens? Yes, it’s fine. I agree with both. I wish he could have been taken alive. Tried. Sent to prison. I’m with you.
As a guide to our actions? Uh, no.
Y’see, my position is very simple: a government has a duty of care to protect its citizens. It has a secondary duty of care to, well, try not to harm anyone else. Lessen any harm, in fact. Pretty much the primary role of government is “make sure nobody kills your citizens”. If someone does, you have to stop them. If this can be achieved through formal, legal, due process methods, good. We should always strive for that.
But if it can’t, this is where we run into a tricky area. In the badlands of Syria, as the old saying goes, the King’s writ does not run. This is no Death on the Rock situation – we don’t have him surrounded, unarmed, in our territory, with all the panoply of state and law at our beck and call. He’s out there, in a land his organisation control, unreachable by normal, formal methods of dealing with him.
So, Mr Emwazi – unless we mount a major military operation (something the supporters of due process here tend to be uniformly against, correct me if I’m wrong) – will be free to commit his crimes. To murder, rape, torture to his hearts content. Maybe at some future date, the region will change and – a la the Balkans – he could be caught in the new peaceful post-conflict Syria (I’m forced to interject here with a point that perhaps the reason the Balkans ended up in that future post-conflict state was, umm, maybe something to do with our military intervention? But I digress). Maybe. Maybe that could happen.
But until then, he’s free to continue his killings, unhindered by intervention from us because, you know, due process. We have to catch him. Serve a warrant. Get him to court.
This at a time where he and his organisation are – de facto, and one could most definitely argue de jure – at war with, well, half the world.
So, here he is, to all intents and purposes an enemy combatant, and we aren’t allowed to touch him because, you know, that makes us bad as him (apparently). And we aren’t allowed to intervene in the area because that makes us, oh, go on, guess.
To argue this is an abnegation of responsibility. To claim that, until the world is perfect, and we have perfect peace, and perfect justice, our hands must be tied. Look, if we kill the guy beheading people, aren’t we just as bad as him?
This argument is facile, lazy, and immoral. It pretends that there is no differentiation in evils – that there is no difference between – say - a possibly grubby course of action and a downright wicked one. Both are equal. Let’s wash our hands of making a choice. An eye for an eye makes the world blind, you know (The Mahatma, of course, could argue thusly as he was being protected from Japanese and Nazi governments by tens of thousands of his own countrymen without his moral qualms).
It’s easy to argue for perfection. For perfect moral clarity and never doing a bad thing to prevent a worse thing. It’s especially easy if you aren’t a poor bloody Syrian living under IS rule, an aid worker kneeling in the desert sand waiting for your death, or a Jordanian pilot being burnt alive on film. Let’s not get our hands dirty. Other people’s problems. I don’t want to feel grubby here.
Meanwhile, the rest of us live in an imperfect world. Come visit sometime. It’s not as nice but it’s a damn sight more realistic.