What moral authority does the US have to kill Suleimani?

We should question the morality of killing any person, even those supposed to be evil

Qassem Suleimani: killed in US drone strike in Baghdad. Photograph: EPA

Why is killing without a trial or oversight uncontroversial?

The opposition to the killing of Iran's Qassem Suleimani by US forces has been either on pragmatic grounds – that the action will simply escalate the conflict – or political – that is condemned as the action of an impulsive, immature president (even though Obama authorised more than 500 drone strikes which killed nearly 3,800 people).

But what if there is a deeper question? What if the action is simply wrong, regardless of whether it is effective?

It is not that anyone in the West, or indeed, that everyone in Iran sees Suleimani as some kind of hero. He has been actively fomenting discord, death and destruction for a very long time.


The key question is not whether, in Trump’s ugly phrase, Suleimani had it coming, but whether killing of this kind corrupts and ultimately destroys important principles that should underpin our culture.

People point to Hitler, generally agreed to be the epitome of evil

Nor is it that the pragmatic arguments against the killing lack merit. Writing in this newspaper, Gideon Rachman describes the "Dr Evil" theory which the US appears to hold. In other words, take out the most important evildoer and you will cripple the organisation.

The key pragmatic objection is that life is rarely that simple. Quite often, killing a leader in this way radicalises his followers even more. Furthermore, if there is a well-funded and organised network behind the person, it is not so easy to disable it. The head that is cut off will be replaced by another and perhaps many more.

But there might be circumstances where a terrorist organisation would find it hard to regroup, thus saving innocent lives. But is it justified even then?

Most people would say yes, that taking the life of someone who has been involved in organising and carrying out despicable acts is always worth it if innocent lives can be saved.

People point to Hitler, generally agreed to be the epitome of evil. Distinguished Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is commonly thought to have been actively involved in plots to kill Hitler, although one carefully researched book – Bonhoeffer the Assassin? – argues that while Bonhoeffer knew of assassination attempts, he maintained his pacifism.

Only some wars end in a way that establishes justice and peace. It is a demanding and difficult task to achieve

But even if the book’s analysis is incorrect and Bonhoeffer was implicated, would it be justifiable to kill even Hitler in cold blood?

I do not have definitive answers but it disturbs me that it does not even seem to be a subject for discussion. There has been a substantial drift from the idea that assassination is, in the words of the post-Watergate Senate Select Committee, “incompatible with American principle, international order and morality”.

Watergate investigations had revealed assassination attempts on foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro, by US intelligence agencies.

Depersonalise targets

There is an additional danger in an era when the emotional distance afforded by drones makes it even easier to depersonalise targets. Social media has a tremendous capacity for good, but it also unleashed a torrent of cruelty because the distance and anonymity make it easier to ignore common decency.

While people are willing to do something only under the cover of anonymity at first, it quickly bleeds into the culture and coarsens all public conversation. It pushes the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

To compare the impact of social media to drone technology obviously compares phenomena that are completely different in scale and impact. But they both make it easier to dehumanise and harm other human beings and both have an impact on the boundaries of what is acceptable.

While politicians may find watching a targeted killing on a screen easier than witnessing a murder in the same room, watching as they destroy from afar is not so easy for those who have to carry out the killing. The personnel who carry out these strikes have higher rates of occupational stress and suicidal thoughts.

One US army source described the strains of going from '"combat to cul-de-sac'", that is, from their work as drone operators to their ordinary family lives far from the conflict.

Gideon Rachman, who made the point about the US “Dr Evil” theory, also says that what was really needed was “patience, restraint and a willingness to avoid reaching for quick, violent fixes”.

The fact is that all conflicts eventually end. Some end with one side being completely obliterated. Some end in subjugation, in an uneasy peace that can erupt into violence at any time. And some end, but at the cost of the death of entire civilisations.

Only some wars end in a way that establishes justice and peace. It is a demanding and difficult task to achieve. But can you achieve it if you allow the depersonalising impact of technology to lead you into acts that are wrong in themselves?

Every country has a right to defend itself but what moral authority does a country have that rains death from the skies without warning or the possibility of defence, not even as a last resort but simply as one more tactic in an arsenal?