Drones, mobs and encounter specialists: Here're players in the killing game

Activists, protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, hold a candlelight vigil outside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul
Despite repeated denials, it is clear by now that Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a bitter critic of crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s policies, was killed for his intransigent conduct.

Precision instruments for bone-chopping, an expert intelligence team and post-mortem specialists were sent to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi was to come for an appointment. He was made to ‘disappear’: his remains, including his bones, doubtless pulverised and the crime scene sterilised well enough for the authorities to now defiantly open the consulate premises for Turkish inspection.

The incident – bone-chilling in the literal sense of the term – serves one good purpose: it highlights the stage we have reached in the popular game of state killing.

Execution style

In our time, while some countries have dispensed with the joy of killing, there are still 90 nations that retain it on their statute books, though 36 seem to have fun fatigue and are not doing it any more.

China takes the crown, for having killed 12,000 in 2002, 6,500 in 2007 and 2,400 in 2013, according to the Dui Hua Foundation. It not only kills its people in droves, it keeps the figures a state secret, though its own figures show that two-thirds of its organ transplants are from people executed. Iran and Saudi Arabia both love making public spectacles of their executions; they also kill minors.

Advanced countries that are ‘very high’ on the UN’s Human Development Index, like the US, Japan and Singapore, continue to hang, shoot, electrocute or poison people. The US has repeatedly found its system tainted by racism, spurious evidence and official wrongdoing – they have placed at least 140 innocent people on death row. Still the killing continues and has, in some states, expanded the grounds for execution.

These are only the cases of official killing, where there is at least the appearance of a stated procedure, including a court and occasionally an appeal process. Legendary US lawyer F. Lee Bailey concluded that a trial has more to do with a gladiatorial contest than any notion of justice: whoever can pay for the better gladiator wins. Imagine the average citizen’s chance of saving his neck if he is charged with a capital crime.

Encounter specialists

But that average citizen is worse than naïve if he or she believes that the threat to their life comes only from a noose or an electrocution gurney. This is where the Khashoggi case opens our eyes to the expanding killing options of the modern state. It does not have to prosecute you, prove your guilt and then hang you. It has more effective options.

The simplest is to twist existing laws and bring in covert, nasty provisions that allow the state to get rid of adversaries without wasting words, money or time. All that you need is what is called in espionage novels the ‘cover story’, the threadbare argument of a national need or a terrorist threat, to help the gullible accept the change of law.

Note with what flimsy evidence the Emergency was installed in India; or how the ghastly Patriot Act glided through the US Congress. Once that happens, the courts are a mockery. You can do with the detained what you like, as the Abu Ghraib guards did with their wards and the US secret cells in Eastern Europe did with their suspects. Nobody knows how many died during and after torture.

Another option is to organise small gangs or paramilitary groups with overt or surreptitious official support to do the dirty work. Those who think the RSS in India is a comical fringe will do well to recall the havoc of the Black Brigades of Mussolini, who carried firearms, had police powers and became notorious for their brutality.

Better known are the Storm Troopers of Hitler, whose resolve to smash ‘Judeo-Bolshevism,’ led to mayhem against the Nazis’ political opponents. In a pogrom that has come to be known as Crystal Night, they sledgehammered 300 synagogues, ruined 700 Jewish businesses and killed hundreds of Jews over two days. The benefit of this option is that the depredations of such gangs can always be explained as excessive zeal and the authorities can wash their hands of culpability.

A variation of this is to create an elite section of police, name them Terrorism Task Force or Emergency Anti-Drug Personnel and vest them, like 007, with the power to kill.

This is what Rodrigo Duterte has done in the Philippines, in the name of fighting narcotics, with handsome emoluments for each kill. Twenty thousand have been killed – the government has admitted to 4,000 – including a huge number of drug users, petty criminals, small traders and bystanders and witnesses. Two senior police officers have said they were paid additionally for killing Duterte’s critics, as well as their family members.

Predator drones and prey

Now, technology has come to the aid of authorities eager to teach a lesson to their supposed enemies. Most people think of drones as something only the US uses against terrorists or fighters in places like Yemen and Afghanistan. The fact is that seventy countries are developing weaponised drones, and manufacturers like General Atomics and Northrop Grumman are churning them out in record numbers for eager buyers.

The biggest use will not be for external conflict, but internal surveillance to identify protesters. They will then be punished with pinpointed spraying, rubber bullets or even highly accurate missiles. Saudi Arabia, not known for accommodating dissent or respecting human rights, is the world’s largest buyer of drones. Raising the slogan of combating terrorism – along with transparent phrase, ‘urban terrorists’ – is enough to satisfy the public that drastic government action was necessary.

If all else fails, there is of course the ultimate recourse of hired assassins, aided by governmental knowhow. Iran’s agents allegedly stabbed Shahpour Bakhtiar, a former premier who had fallen out of favor, right on his doorstep in Paris. Vladimir Putin’s agents have dispatched several uncompromising Russians overseas using radioactive poison. Kim Jong Un’s agents trained two young women to amorously rub a chemically treated handkerchief on his cousin’s face in an airport and asphyxiate him.

You may oppose a government, as did Jamal Khashoggi, living in presumed safety in another land, but you cannot escape the long reach of its murderous wrath.

While these may seem like overly dismal scenarios, which could happen only in other countries at other times, when journalists get killed on their doorsteps, one might legitimately wonder whether the chickens are coming home to roost.

/> Manish Nandy is a former diplomat, executive and World Bank official

Inarrangement with TheWire.in