08/09/2015 12:56 BST | Updated 08/09/2016 06:12 BST

It Is Deeply Disturbing When the Rule of Law Is Jettisoned, and a Politician Decides Who Should Die at the Touch of a Button

Sometime on 21 August, a British drone operator in a hangar in Lincolnshire pressed a button and a missile was launched in northern Syria. It killed Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old from Cardiff. The PM and his Attorney General approved the 'hit', and now we are told that some legal theory related to self-defence justified the decision.

Of course, the standard would-you-rather-wait-till-he-kills-someone brigade shrugs its shoulders at all this. But for the rest of us it is deeply disturbing when the rule of law is jettisoned, and a politician decides who should die at the touch of a button.

Until today, we might have thought these excesses were confined to the United States. In the White House, the second day of the working week has been designated "Terror Tuesday": President Obama watches a PowerPoint of individuals on his "Disposition Matrix" and decides who should be assassinated and who should face an alternative "disposition". Then the CIA or the military sends its drones aloft and launches hellfire missiles down on those below, thousands of miles away from Washington - often making tragic mistakes.

Yesterday, despite Downing Street denying the existence of its own 'kill list', we learned that the UK has just this - a list of people we plan to kill in secret. Once again, our principles risk becoming the main casualty in the War On Terror, as we jettison 800 years of the rule of law. Was Khan ever going to commit a crime in the UK? I have no idea. The benefit of a courtroom - or even a Parliamentary debate - is that it allows us to hear the evidence beforehand, and can prevent us from making mistakes.

The CIA (and now Cameron) want us to think that they are clinical killers. It just ain't so. Until today, it had only been the Americans who had killed people with drones; and the statistics deserve mention, even if the total secrecy of the programme makes it hugely difficult to get reliable figures. Forty-one individuals have been reported in the media and by the CIA to have been "killed" on multiple occasions, and some still remain irritatingly alive. In total, 1,147 people, including at least 142 children, were killed in the attempts on these 41 'targets'. Nine children have died for each of 14 targets in Pakistan. Is this legal? Is it proportional? Is it moral?

Ultimately, does grandstanding make Britain a safer place, as Cameron claims? Quite the contrary. Every time we abandon the principles that make us better than ISIS, our hypocrisy provokes another round of extremism. In 2001, the membership list of al Qaida would barely have filled a page. For every prisoner in Guantánamo Bay, an intelligence officer once opined to me, we have provoked ten people to do us harm. Every drone strike that accidentally kills a child turns an entire community white hot with enmity.

The question of Syria should be subjected to a democratic debate. If we think we should join a war there, and perhaps reprise Iraq, then we will have democratically chosen our own course - however foolish it may be. But if our politicians know they cannot publicly persuade the people that a war will make us safer, then resorting to secret killings is not the answer.