The public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko starts tomorrow in the Royal Courts of Justice in London (details here). Litvinenko was a former KGB officer, openly critical of Vladimir Putin and reportedly in the pay of MI6. He was allegedly murdered by two Russian nationals, Andrei Lugovoy and Dimitri Kovtun, both of whom are former KGB bodyguards, using the highly radioactive substance polonium-210. Traces of the element were found in Litvinenko’s body, a Mayfair hotel and Itsu sushi bar, both in London and frequented by Litvinenko on the suspected day of his poisoning, and British Airways aircraft supposedly used by Lugovoy and Kovtun travelling to and from Russia.
One of the terms of reference for the inquiry is to identify where responsibility for the death lies. This could be politically explosive if Sir Robert Owen, the inquiry’s Chairman, criticises the Russian state in any way, which is likely given its refusal to extradite Lugovoy and Kovtun. What the inquiry will not be discussing however, is the much more politically charged issue of the efficacy and morality of the alleged tactic used; that of a targeted killing.
Much has been spoken of precision weapons in recent years (including an earlier post, Man versus machine). But little consideration has been given to debating the most precise way of targeting an adversary; using a human being to identify and kill another. The most recent public use of this tactic was the killing in Dubai of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a senior Hamas member, allegedly by an Israeli team, on January 19th 2010 (see more here). In terms of collateral damage (i.e. killing people other than those intended) it is about as precise a method as is currently available. But to much of the world the employment of this tactic is abhorrent.
Why? Ultimately, killing is morally challenging and the demand from society for a clinically efficient targeting of its adversaries without the necessity of having to consider the realities of the task is naive and hypocritical. This view is understood by Gisela Stuart, Labour MP and member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee: “Society is very happy to talk about peacekeeping,” she says, “but when you say, ‘do you know, there is a requirement to kill people before you get the peace and you can’t have one without the other’, we don’t like engaging with that.”
Society’s relationship with security and the necessity of killing is complicated. The increasing impact of human rights legislation and the presumption in the West that existential threats are relics of history have contributed to a lower tolerance for casualties and collateral damage. But the desire not to engage with this issue leads to the contradictory position whereby the most precise and discriminatory technique of targeted killing is eschewed in favour of one, such as drone strikes, that will undoubtedly lead to greater collateral damage. Targeted killing through the use of a small team in personal contact with the adversary exposes the wider civilian population to a level of harm far below that accepted with precision munitions.
Ms Stuart is in favour of discussing the merits and difficulties of employing such tactics, but accepts it will be a difficult to win the argument with the general public. When asked if Britain should be prepared to go into a third country with a functioning state and carry out a targeted killing operation, she replied: “I hope so, but it’s a bit like sex education when a 5-year old asks you something. You don’t tell them the whole story, but what you do tell them has to be the truth. It is un-British to make it too obvious. Not in front of the children.”