If you somehow knew who Adolph Hitler would become and what he would do, would you murder him before he could do his damage? This rhetorical question is asked by personality tests, psychologists, and Philosophy professors all the time to gauge the morality of their subjects. Many otherwise peaceful people have quickly answered yes. So then the quandary becomes about where the boundary lies and when we become OK with murder or assassination. When you use someone as horrible as Hitler, the odds are guaranteed to have an emotional and reactionary response. When taken out of the hypothetical realm, odds are that most people would say they are against preemptive murder, no matter what the circumstances are. There are laws against that kind of thing in almost every civilized nation – including Britain – but on this day in 1988, British soldiers ignored them.
The Gibraltar killings, also known as Operation Flavius, were carried out by the British Special Air Services (SAS) with the aid of the Spanish government and the Gibraltar police. By the end of the operation, three Irish Republican Army volunteers were dead. Sean Savage, Mairead Farrell, and Daniel McCann were known IRA members who had made a number of trips to the area using false identities and fake passports. Unbeknownst to them, they were under constant surveillance and their movements had been tracked for months by MI5, the Spanish police and the Gibraltar police at the request of the British government. The British believed that the IRA team was going to plant a bomb during the changing of the guard ceremony that took place outside the governor’s house in the area of Gibraltar. The ceremony and parade were popular with tourists and it was the ultimate location of their power in the territory. They were not going to risk an explosion there and in the end, they preemptively killed all three suspects in order to prevent one.
Aside from the moral question of whether the murders could be justified or not, this operation has had many lasting effects. According to records, the SAS had practiced arrest techniques and were working with the Gibraltar police to find a suitable place to hold the suspects after they were arrested. The original plan was that the Special Services team would act as back up when the police arrested the suspects who had been identified months before by British counter-intelligence. It sounds like a solid plan but none of it came to fruition. The sticky point of this whole case is that the suspects could have been detained or arrested at any point up until their deaths but they weren’t. There was enough evidence to hold and likely convict the IRA members of conspiracy at the least. Instead, the authorities continued to allow them to move freely, even after they suspected they were transporting a bomb. If the plan was just to stop the bombing, it could have been done at any point simply by arresting the suspects but instead, the three were gunned down as they strolled down the street.
Before that fateful walk, the suspects first abandoned a car that they had driven into the area. It was likely a placeholder for the next, which would have had a bomb in it, but this one was empty. It was parked in the most strategic spot for their plan, close to where the parade ends and where it would cause maximum damage if the was to be an explosion. Immediately after they were out of sight, the watching police immediately brought in a specialist to determine whether a bomb was in the car or not. Most experts agree that it was obvious due to the carriage and the evenly distributed weight that no bomb was in the car but the specialist chose to recommend treating it as if there was. At this point, the operation was turned over to the SAS entirely and everything else that followed is up for debate.
The story that the British authorities tell is vastly different from eyewitness statements. The SAS team says they were moving in to intercept the trio and were seen. They claim that Sean Savage fled while the other two each reached furtively or behaved suspiciously and the soldiers, “fearing for their lives,” shot them repeatedly. Sean Savage did run and was also shot multiple times when he was chased down by a soldier. Witnesses to both incidents state that there were never any warning shots or verbal communication of any kind. The team was in plainclothes—jeans and T-shirts—without any visible sign of a uniform or badge and they never once attempted an arrest of any kind. They just started shooting. What’s even more controversial is that many eyewitnesses say that Daniel McCann and Mairead Farrell were shot while their hands were in the air, as they appeared to try to surrender. Not only were they killed but they were shot over and over, at close range, even after they were on the ground. Daniel McCann was hit at least four times – twice in the back, and one time each in the head and jaw. Mairead was hit twice in the face and three times in the back. The coroner couldn’t even determine the number of times that Sean Savage was shot but he estimated that it was somewhere around 16. A witness to that shooting said that most of the shots occurred while the suspect was already on the ground, held there by the soldier’s boot on his chest and at the eventual inquest, the coroner called his death a “frenzied attack“. None of the suspects were armed with weapons or detonators and as stated earlier, it turned out that there was no bomb in the car they had parked next to their target.
It took six months for the inquest to begin, after it was stalled by the British for as long as it could be. The SAS team universally stated that there was no conspiracy to kill the alleged bombers. Members also initially denied knowing what false names the suspects were traveling under and other important details, but when pressed, they admitted a deeper knowledge of both the plan of attack and the suspects themselves, thanks to months of surveillance.The soldiers immediately pointed at the other departments. It was the Spanish Border Guards who dropped the ball, or the Gibraltar police, or perhaps it was the counter-intelligence teams…and then each of them took turns pointing at the other as well. Lost evidence was never found, the soldiers’ statements were not taken in a timely fashion or with any level of privacy, and one of the eyewitnesses recanted his story. Many people lied outright on the stand which only came to light after the case was decided and done. Eventually, the inquest was just as convoluted as the operation and the jury returned a verdict of “Lawful Killing.” Many in the world agreed, and newspapers crowed at the decision – repeatedly focusing on the plot that might have happened and the criminal pasts of those who were killed, instead of questioning the abuse of power that led to their deaths. It sparked off many incidents of violence in the North of Ireland, where the three volunteers were from, making the Troubles that much worse. After the inquest was done, Amnesty International and the victims’ families, who had obviously disagreed with the decision, appealed to the European Court of Human Rights. Years later, the court found that the operation was in violation of Article 2 (Right to Life) of the European Convention of Human Rights. They stated that the authorities’ failure to arrest the suspects at the border, combined with the information and orders given to the soldiers, rendered the use of lethal force almost inevitable. They also called the actions of the SAS excessive. Since the victims were killed when they were on active duty in a terrorist organization, their families could not receive a settlement but at least their sons and daughter had a voice in their executions. The court decision is still cited as a landmark case in the use of force by the state and their killings are still one of the most infamous incidents of state brutality. Today, murals remembering the three volunteers are still seen in Belfast.
So now it’s back to the hypothetical question. If killing Hitler would be OK, then I guess killing potential bombers would be too, right? Even if they were unarmed people just walking down the street at the time they were killed, it potentially saved lives so many didn’t argue with the manner of their deaths, and even cheered them. Only a few people came to their defense or questioned the legality of their assassinations but at least there are still some who did. Regardless of what they might have done if they had lived or how they might have reacted if they’d been arrested, their preemptive murder (and any others for that matter) should be unjustifiable. Police are not supposed to have a shoot to kill policy and someone should have been held responsible for the three deaths. Shooting first and asking later is wrong. America is dealing with the same problems now – we demonize the victims, instead of criminalizing their deaths – as evidenced in Ferguson, New York, Oakland, and Florida, just to name a few. It just goes to show that we all still need to learn how to be better. After all, when a country or nation strikes another preemptively, it is considered an act of war.