Accused of having murdered a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil, India’s government and its apologists have offered a number of defences, some of them mutually contradictory. Thus: We didn’t do it; you have no proof that we did it – and besides, other countries do it all the time. Why are we being singled out?
It is true that extrajudicial killings are not unknown around the world, including among the democracies. The United States has ordered strikes on suspected terrorists in various countries. Israel has assassinated those it holds responsible for the murder of Israeli citizens. Isn’t India merely doing the same?
These kinds of arguments, defending one practice with reference to another, have a potent, multi-faceted appeal. For the accused, they offer the absolution of the tu quoque, or as it is now called, whataboutism: if you are guilty I cannot be.
For the media, they offer the refuge of apparent even-handedness: rather than draw difficult moral distinctions, easier to condemn “both sides” equally. For would-be sophisticates, they offer the chance to appear worldly-wise: let’s not be naive, everybody does it.
For the relativist, they offer evidence that there are no moral absolutes: the only real crime is hypocrisy. And for those of a reflexively oppositional mentality, heavily represented, like relativists, among undergraduates, they remind us: we’re the bad guys, really.
But does this moral equivalence stand up? Yes, India and the United States have both carried out extrajudicial killings. Does that mean each is worthy of the same condemnation? Germany and the United States both invaded France in the Second World War. But I think we’d agree the two were rather different, morally.
In other words, context matters. The same act will take on a different moral colour in the light of different circumstances. It matters, first, in assessing any act of state, what kind of state is the actor. That doesn’t mean anything goes, or that democracies are absolved of all moral responsibility simply by virtue of being democracies. But states are not morally indistinguishable: an act that advances the interests and values of one is not to be judged the same as if it advanced the interests and values of another.
This is a tough one for a lot of people. But it is simply not the case, for example, that Ukraine joining NATO is “just like” the Soviet Union installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, because a defensive alliance of democracies is not “just like” an expansionist totalitarian dictatorship. Or in other words: We’re the good guys. If you don’t believe that, you have a much larger issue than with any particular act.
Second, it matters what kind of state is being acted upon. A country that respects the rule of law at home and in its dealings with other states, that is in control of its own territory and in conformity with international norms, will enjoy more of the benefit of the doubt than a lawless or rogue state.
Canada, for example, is a liberal, open and constitutional democracy with an internationally respected system of law. Moreover, India has an extradition treaty with it. If it suspects someone in Canada of a crime, it has only to apply to extradite them, subject to the usual rules of evidence and principles of justice. It does not need to send over squads of gunmen to kill them.
India complains that it has had limited success in extraditing suspects from Canada: just six since the treaty was signed in 1987. But the same is true in its dealings with other democracies: courts generally are wary of authorizing the transfer of prisoners to a state which, especially under Narendra Modi, has a reputation for mistreating them. Which suggests the fault may lie with India’s system of justice, rather than other countries’.
And third, it matters what kind of individual is involved. The range of possible actions will be different for an ordinary criminal, than for, say, the head of a terrorist proto-state. There was no practical possibility of a trial for Osama bin Laden, for example, and no doubt of his responsibility – not for a crime but an act of war.
Put all of these together. On the one hand, a democracy like the United States, defending itself from an acknowledged threat like bin Laden or ISIL, in lawless states like Afghanistan or rogue states like Pakistan or states like Syria that are a bit of both, and subject to the restraints imposed by its own laws and processes.
On the other, an increasingly autocratic state like Mr. Modi’s India presumptively assassinating someone it merely suspects of crimes, on the sovereign territory of a law-abiding democracy like Canada.
There is simply no comparison.