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If you think it was murder, say so

How many articles and blogposts have referred to Orwell’s classic essay Politics and the English Language? Well, here’s another. I’m put in mind of it by recent use of the sinister phrase “extrajudicial killing” to describe the lethal RAF strike on British “Islamic State” fighters. Bad writers, according to Orwell

and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground …

Notice that one of his examples begins with extra.

Kate Hudson of CND has been quoted in the Telegraph as saying of the RAF drone strike—

This is extrajudicial killing: A British Prime Minister now claims the right to kill British citizens when they travel abroad.

Lord West, quoted in the Guardian, said the RAF’s apparent new policy

could very easily creep into an issue of extrajudicial killing.

The Morning Star used the phrase in a headline while according to the Herald the SNP’s Humza Yousaf talked somewhat tautologically of

the extra-judicial killing without trial of British citizens

and the subheading to a Guardian piece by Gary Younge said

extrajudicial killings can never be justified.

It is often easier, Orwell wrote

to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning.

Notice again that one of his examples begins with extra. People who write badly, he went on

usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.

Indeed, critics of the recent RAF drone strike do dislike it in a general way. But what is meant by “extrajudicial killing”? Why is an extrajudicial killing especially bad? Does it even mean anything?

It may help to consider whether judicial killing would be better. It makes a sort of sense to complain that Reyaad Khan’s death was an extrajudicial execution if you’re David Davis, since he has backed the death penalty which should indeed be judicial if it happens at all. Why do others avoid the word execution? Perhaps, ironically, it seems too strong given its common and quite wrong use for the atrocious murders committed by “Islamic State”. Or perhaps they remain dimly aware through the fog of verbal war that pre-emptive defence is not punishment.

In Britain, in any case, we abandoned capital punishment some time ago. Now, the idea that someone might be killed judicially is particularly repellent. I doubt critics of “extrajudicial killing” prefer to have anyone put to death by due process of law, but the phrase implies just that. Orwell was right: it must be that they’re not interested in the detail of what they’re saying.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.

The phrase extrajudicial killing is indeed spreading and corrupting thought. Judicial killing not being fine, “extrajudicial” adds nothing and means nothing. All that these critics are actually saying is that killing’s to be feared, or always wrong: something that’s either banal or plain inaccurate, since killing can be justified in self-defence or war, or even out of compassion. But what are they trying to say?

The convenience of extrajudicial killing is that it implies wickeness vaguely connected with the law, without accusing anyone of breaking it; and its repetition suggests to the mind unspecified wrong by sending thought to sleep. Here’s Orwell again:

This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases … can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

Orwell also gave us the remedy, however.

If you simplify your English … when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

It is stupid to complain of “extrajudicial” killing by the RAF, when warfare has always been extrajudicial. If instead you simply oppose killing by British forces, your stupidity should indeed be obvious. Unless you think Britain should never use force, then obviously you agree its armed services may legitimately kill. When they do so intentionally and illegally it is indeed wrong, but the plain English word for that is murder.

The most famous sentence in Orwell’s essay runs like this:

Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

You may think the RAF murdered Reyaad Khan, and that any defence of this drone strike reflects an Orwellian design to make murder respectable. If you do think so, have the courage to use the word.

Write a Comment


  1. I hope some will have the courage to agree that war is war, tragic though undoubtedly it may be.

  2. When I use the phrase (and I do), I do so to draw attention to the fact that the State – which is responsible for creating and enforcing the law – is taking steps to move its actions outside that context. The US policy that created Guantanamo is another example.

    The distinction I’m trying to express between this and murder is that in the case of murder, the person committing it is acting within the framework of the law, they’re just breaking the law… and they can be held to account for it.

    Now, you may argue that the government is acting within the framework of the law because they sought the Attorney General’s advice. Even if you’re right, it seems to me that there have been instances where the government has clearly gone to its advisers and said “help us find a way round (or a way to re-interpret) the intent of this law, so that we can do what we want”. And I think that is an especially pernicious course of action for the executive to take.

  3. Reyaad Khan claimed to be a soldier fighting for an entity which claims to be a state and which has declared war on the UK. That confers certain legal statuses all round; the UK, having signed up to a UN charter, uses it to make clear its position (in extremely unclear circumstances such as the declaration of war, the qualifying characteristics of statehood, the status of enemy soldier etc.). As you say in the earlier post, Khan can be regarded as having had also other statuses, which confer different legal environments.

    For a citizen to take up arms against his own state (further, in the service of an enemy state which makes the action different again) raises a lot of charges. How these are hierarchized complicates things even more: which legal regime applies? War, criminality, or both? Much of the arguing seems to rest on war-like actions being pushed into criminal-type arenas, or criminal actions taking precedence over war-like actions and their elicited responses.

    Acts of war also come under a different political authority, so those pushing for Parliamentary control of Executive power to act seek to have Khan’s behaviour categorised as criminal, not war-like. Lots of slip-sliding from one category to another going on, plus all the other stuff you mention like political embarrassment and its exploitation. Bit dishonest not to own up to war being different from crime though and admit that he said he was a soldier and his army has declared war on us.

  4. I think you’re on the wrong track here. “Extra-judicial killing” is a widely-used term in the literature on counter-terrorism; I use it myself every year when I’m setting exam questions, e.g. “Outline one case of extra-judicial killing by the state in the ‘War on Terror’. What arguments have been given to justify or excuse it? What arguments have been given to condemn it? Assess these arguments.”

    I could of course write “Outline one case of murder by the state”, etc, and teach students about the killing of Baha Mousa, Anwar and Abdelrahman al-Awlaki, Jean-Charles de Menezes et al in those terms, but I think this would raise the rhetorical temperature unhelpfully without actually making the topic any clearer.

  5. For once I think you have missed your target with your assault on those of us who have described the killing of the British citizen Reyaad Khan by an RAF drone strike as “extra-judicial”. This term, although doubtless neither a technical nor a legal one, usefully distinguishes it from a ‘judicial’ killing (infliction of death as capital punishment when prescribed by law). It describes a deliberate killing by the state of a specific targeted individual, not in the context of a war*, not done in accordance with any law and without due process (charge, trial, conviction, right of appeal, burden of proof, etc.), some or all of which are elements in a judicial killing. The ‘judicial’ part of the term identifies it as an act of state, not a private act: it adds that essential characteristic to the much more wide-ranging concept of murder or assassination, which lack the stipulation that the killing was an act of state, whether judicial (as in capital punishment as prescribed by a law) or extra-judicial (i.e. without any legal underpinning, even as an act of war). Orwell would surely have had no problem with any of that. It’s clear, pithy, and can’t be expressed more simply without any loss of essential meaning.
    You scold us who say it was extra-judicial, challenging us that “if you think it was murder, say so”. But we do say so: we say it was both murder and something worse than murder, an extra-judicial killing by our state and in our name. I’m surprised that you can’t see it.

    *The UK letter to the UN may have sought to place the murder(s) in the context of an armed attack on Iraq and Iraq’s right to collective self-defence, but as you have pointed out elsewhere, that looks like a quite different attempt at justification from that employed by the prime minister in his statement in the House of Commons where the sole context was self-defence against terrorism in the UK. A solitary plotting of terrorist acts against the plotter’s own country from thousands of miles away surely can’t qualify as an armed attack! And the plotter(s) was or were killed in Syria, anyway, not in Iraq.

    HMG’s case seems to be in the same category as “It wasn’t me, Guv, and anyway he started it.”

    I apologise for the delay in posting this comment. I have been away without sufficient internet access to allow me to post my comment earlier.

  6. Picking holes in the use of the term without any acknowledgement of it’s widely accepted meaning, pretty amateurish.

    You agree with the action of the British Government, your Twitter account tells us so, that doesn’t make the term wrong.

  7. Darryl,

    I agree with your last point: my view on the government’s actions doesn’t make the use of a word wrong. Nor does your view make it right. I think it’s a dodgy term whatever anyone’s views. As I say in the post, those who think this killing was illegal should be calling it murder.

    And what do you say is the widely accepted meaning of “extrajudicial killing”?

  8. I continue to think there is a value in using the term “extra-judicial” – and I don’t think the term corrupts thought, but I think Brian Barder was right to say that that should not preclude us from calling it murder as well.

    If an individual commits murder, there’s nothing that individual can do to ensure that their actions cannot be subjected to the provisions of the law. However, the government appears, in these cases, to be taking deliberate steps to ensure that it cannot be held legally accountable for its actions. If there is a corrupting influence here, it’s not in the use of the term “extra-judicial”; it’s in the government’s intent to bypass the laws it is responsible for upholding.


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