Death by drone is swift and efficient – it’s also murder

I took the Letters page of this newspaper to confirm my instinctive reaction when I heard that the US government had assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, a leading figure in al-Qa’ida, in Yemen. The Americans had sent two Predator drones to the area. They fired Hellfire missiles at a vehicle containing Awlaki and three other suspected al-Qa’ida members. The drone operator was probably working at an air force base in the US, most likely in Nevada. I picture him or her later driving home after a busy day in the office.

On our Letters page, Patricia Sheerin wrote that she searched our coverage in vain for just a few words condemning “yet another cowardly assassination”. Roger Jones lamented that “when we see the President of the United States calling a press conference for the second time in a matter of weeks to boast about having committed murder, it’s hard not to wonder whether the words moral compass still have any meaning at all in his unhappy country”. In fact the media as a whole was largely silent on the moral issues. Why was this?

Perhaps because the US has been conducting drone strikes on individuals since 2004. Reported drone strikes in north-west Pakistan by the US, for instance, including 60 so far in 2011 alone, have killed thousands of individuals in seven years, of whom many, but not all, were described as militants. The New America Foundation in Washington has collated these figures. But north-west Pakistan is akin to a war zone because of its porous frontier with Afghanistan, whereas Yemen is not. So a second reason for the lack of adverse comment must be that Awlaki was, by all accounts, a bad man.

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