Bad conscience, bad document

The already-infamous US government “White paper” asserting the right to secretly kill its own nationals anywhere in the world has attracted a lot of comment, and much of that comment probably belongs with legal experts.

But as someone who has been involved in reading and writing for a living all his life, what struck me most was the shoddy quality, both of the thinking and of the writing. If one of my students had produced this, or someone who worked for me when I was a civil servant, I would have told them to take it back and do it again. (“You haven’t covered the international dimension. What happens when everyone starts acting the same way?”)

In government, you get used as an official  to making respectable arguments for things you personally disagree with: it’s part of the democratic system. But here, I think something close to a bad conscience is at work. No-one, after all, could seriously believe that it’s possible to make an ethical and legal case for carrying out assassinations of people because you don’t like them, and because they cannot prove that they will never be a threat to you. But that’s what Power wants, so you do your best. It’s not a very good best because, even if you don’t admit it, you have moral qualms about what you are doing. On the other hand, you don’t want to accept that you are justifying murder. So you produce rubbish like this. Take it away, and don’t do it again.


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