President Barack Obama is, in my view, a decent man. I voted for him twice. He was a constitutional law professor before he was commander-in-chief of the mightiest military on earth, and he clearly struggles with the fatal decisions that are foist upon him. However, he is human and has made some mistakes.
One of the most catastrophic has been to rush headlong into the Drone Age, and to establish (with close British complicity) a Kill List focused on killing hundreds of people with Hellfire Missiles.
Today, Reprieve has released a report that begins the task of unravelling the British role in the Anglo-American Kill List. Political leaders find it alluring to think that our military officers can sit at a computer console drinking coffee, killing "bad guys" ten thousand miles away at the push of a button. Proponents assure us that the Predator drone is precise, and point out that no body bags will come back to grieving relatives in London or Washington DC.
And yet, sad to say, this "easy war" has had terrible consequences. First, we keep killing the wrong people. For every "High Value Target" we target, the evidence suggests that we accidentally kill an average of nine children. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the policy has made us all significantly less safe: an American consular officer was quoted last week as saying that the Kill List "generates roughly 40 to 60 new enemies for every [terrorist] operative killed by drones".
In a speech he gave at Chicago Law School last Thursday, President Obama expressed unease at the power he has over life and death, but he insisted that drones are vital to America's national defence. "I wish I could just send in Iron Man," Obama said. "I don't mean that as a joke."
Unfortunately, it is a joke (a sorry one), though those in charge of his drone Kill List have obviously not explained it to him. The first iteration of the Anglo-American Kill List was euphemistically called the Joint Prioritised Effects List, or JPEL.
As we reveal in the report, when the US and the UK decide to kill people, each "Objective" (the term used for the person chosen for prospective death) is given a code name. Because the code names were chosen by intelligence agents intent on dehumanizing the people who they were about to kill, the "Objectives" ranged from porn stars to cartoon characters – and Iron Man is the sobriquet chosen for number 469 on the list - JPEL 469 OBJ Iron Man. We don't know Iron Man's alleged offence; we only know that he was added to the JPEL Kill List in 2009.
At the same time, Iron Man is a cartoon Super Hero who has made it onto the big screen. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr) has recently saved New York from destruction, but is plagued with anxiety and insomnia. It has been ruining every aspect of his life, including his relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow). Perhaps Iron Man has been feeling bad because he is currently facing execution by drone missile.
Proponents of the War on Terror have often sought to distance themselves from their more extreme miscalculations. We pretended that waterboarding was not torture; we call it "Enhanced Interrogation Techniques". Similarly, those who we target in the Drone Age with Hellfire missiles fired from Predator drones are not human beings, but "Squirters" – people running away, wetting themselves in terror. Someone who we blow to tiny pieces is called a "Bugsplat".
The codenames – reflected in the Reprieve report – give us an insight into the depths of dehumanization in the Kill List process. JPEL 58 OBJ Aletta, for example, is named after the Hungarian porn star Aletta Ocean; JPEL 79 OBJ Altavera, after a contraceptive pill; and JPEL 365 OBJ Sawdust is named for an album by, ironically enough, The Killers. One wonders what Annie Lennox thinks of them using the name of her band? The US and the UK plan to kill JPEL 451 OBJ Eurythmics.
Equally troubling, many names of Kill List targets are identified by codenames that could only have come from a British agent. These include, for example, JPEL 15 OBJ Kirn (a village in Argyll), JPEL 180 OBJ Chelsea (the London area, or the football team), JPEL 185 OBJ Newry (in Northern Ireland), JPEL 226 OBJ Taggart (the TV series), JPEL 228 OP Shetland (the Island), JPEL 254 OBJ Brechin (in Scotland), JPEL 346 OBJ Redbridge (the London borough), JPEL 349 OBJ Warwick Davis (the British actor), JPEL 354 Warrior Run (a UK obstacle course), JPEL 448 OBJ Gwenvor (a Cornish resort), JPEL 604 OBJ Dagenham (with the Ford car works), and JPEL 650 OBJ Portishead (the band). This is circumstantial proof of how deeply involved the British agents are in this Kill List.
In reply, it is not enough to say that terrorists are evil: the report demonstrates that the UK and the US have included common criminals on their Kill List, including drug traffickers. As with so many other ill-advised ideas dreamt up in the name of the "War on Terror" – from Guantanámo, to Abu Ghraib, to Torture, to Rendition – this Kill List is just another ill-considered concept that will make the world a more dangerous place.
Sometimes it is hard not to despair for humanity. After all, we have enjoyed 268 years of judicial evolution since Emer de Vettel, the Swiss philosopher, roundly condemned the use of assassination. He remarked that the person "who makes use of such execrable means should be regarded as an enemy of the human race". How readily our generation forgets these hard-won lessons of history.
Clive Stafford Smith is the director of the legal action charity Reprieve.