On Saturday afternoon, just a day after the Tube shooting incident in south London which has stunned the city even more than the detonator blasts merely 24 hours before, it emerged that the victim of the shooting — the alleged suspected terrorist bomber — was actually innocent. In the wrong place, at the wrong time, as The Independent has put it.
Jean Charles de Menezes, an electrician from Brazil living in south London, was on his way to work on Friday morning when he was surprised by a team of plain-clothes police officers at Stockwell station, who then gave chase through the building. What subsequently unfolded was a tragic chain of events that lead to the death of an innocent man — and, in turn, to a lengthening list of unanswered questions regarding the safety of all Londoners, especially those who might appear slightly unusual. Whatever that is.
The Metropolitan Police were quick to apologise in the aftermath of this event — unusually swift for a law enforcement agency — though that did come with a caveat: that the officers involved acted within their remit, to protect the public from a perceived imminent danger. ‘Shoot to kill to protect,’ I think they’re saying.
But now that the inquest investigating his shooting has heard that de Menezes was shot eight times — seven times in the head, once in the shoulder — and not five times as previously reported by eyewitnesses, their policy and motivations deserve much closer scrutiny.
Early on in the controversy the BBC News site provided a forum for readers’ opinions on the shooting, such as this telling point made by Greg, from London:
> The problem with the shooting is that the police were plain-clothed. If a man flees uniformed police and jumps onto a train in the current climate, the police have little choice. But the police were not uniformed. All Mr Menezes saw was a group of men pulling guns and screaming in a Tube station. Given the events of the last few weeks, no wonder he fled.
The BBC’s Brazilian correspondent Tom Gibb also gave his perspective, which puts the chain of events in an similarly different light:
> The murder rates in some of these slums [in Sao Paulo, where de Menezes lived for a time] are worse than in a lot of war zones and that could explain why, when plain clothes officers pulled a gun on him, he may have run away.
It’s the fight-or-flight response, isn’t it? And for most people, I’d say flight is the only option. If you put yourself in de Menezes’ shoes, you might see what I see: if I’m suddenly yelled at and chased by a gang of scruffy-looking yobs brandishing machine guns, the last thing I’d do is stop. I wouldn’t have time to process what they were shouting at me. I’d run the fuck away from them! Hop a turnstyle if I have to. Anything to get away from an armed gang who’ve appeared out of nowhere, and seem to be gunning for me.
Now if they were in uniform, it might be a different story; I might start to flee on instinct, but I’d register the black and white uniforms. It would quickly hit me that these people were the police, and I’d be in worse trouble if I didn’t stop. Of course I’ve never been chased by the police, or an armed gang for that matter, so I really don’t know what I’d do. But I can identify with what de Menezes did. Though judging my many others’ reactions, I feel like the only one who does.
I noted there was much talk over the weekend about how de Menezes’ jacket was ‘unseasonable clothing’, and how that compounded police suspicions. I can imagine people nodding and thinking ‘ah, he must have been hiding something — what other possible reason could have have for wearing a bulky coat?’ But I have to ask, since when is wearing a winter jacket in the summer punishable by death?
De Menezes was from Brazil, a much warmer country than Britain even in wintertime. Is it not fair to assume that what’s warm to a Brit might be nippy to a Brazilian? I can tell you from experience. My significant other is from South Africa and feels cold when it dips down to 20 degrees celcius — people in this part of the world take off their tops at lower temperatures. I, myself, have been known to wear a heavy coat on a warm day, for any number of reasons: maybe my coat is the only place I can keep my wallet, or maybe I feel like sweating off some weight. Does it matter what the reason is? Do I now have to run all my sartorial choices by the thought police before I leave the house?
Sure, I might look ‘unusual’, but who doesn’t? To me a turban is unusual — you don’t see them every day on the streets of Dublin — but that doesn’t mean there’s a bomb hidden under every one, does it? Somehow I get the feeling that many would disagree with that, even if for a split-second.
But back to the events in question. The one thing to me that makes this shooting all the more unfathomable and all the more frightening is the fact that de Menezes was followed from his home, onto a bus, and into the station before the police chose to stop him. If de Menezes was really assessed as such a potential danger to the public that it necessitated his killing, then why was he not stopped from boarding the bus? Was he not an equal threat to the people on the bus? Or are the lives of Tube passengers somehow worth more? Because that’s the distinct impression I’m getting.
The more I think about it, the more I consider the facts as they have emerged piece by piece, the more it appears to be like one giant cock-up from beginning to end. It’s certainly not the first time that’s ever happened — police records the world over are undoubtedly filled with monumental investigative mistakes — but even though they do happen, that’s no reason to let them.
The journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell was quoted among a panel of experts in yesterday’s Guardian, giving his reaction to Friday’s shooting:
> I would say a well-trained and experienced police officer will put himself in that situation as little as possible. The function of training is to avoid ever having to shoot to kill … I don’t think some blanket statement that it’s never justified is helpful but … when you look at instances where the police shoot innocent people there is … some failure of training, some failure of perception, some circumstance that could have been avoided.
Gladwell, incidentally, was also featured in a special interview programme on CNN International on Sunday evening, promoting his worldwide bestseller Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. (There doesn’t seem to be a transcript available yet, so what I repeat here is from memory.) In the course of the chat Gladwell made a point about police officers doing a better job on their own rather than in groups. He used the Rodney King incident as illustration: in the group mentality, the officers who beat him were ruled by testosterone and the aggression it cultivates, to give just two factors. In spite of their training they were more prone to acting impulsively, without consideration for the consequences of their actions, when caught up in the moment. If there had been a single officer on the scene, Gladwell speculated, then the Rodney King incident might never have happened.
Listening to Gladwell, I couldn’t help but think of those plain-clothes officers who bundled on top of a ‘petrified’ de Menezes before pumping seven bullets into his head.
> The police acted to do what they believed necessary to protect the lives of the public. This tragedy has added another victim to the toll of deaths for which the terrorists bear responsibility.
The above comment comes from London’s mayor Ken Livingstone, who gave a statement to the press on Saturday evening.
If I might reply directly: actually, Ken, you’re wrong. The terrorists bear little if any responsibity for this killing. In this specific instance, the police bear it all. They’re supposed to be trained for these types of situations, so arguing that they had to do what they had to do ‘under the circumstances’ doesn’t wash with me. In fact, this situation mirrors any number of ‘accidental’ police shootings of black males in the United States – at least one has been shot for brandishing a weapon that turned out to be a chocolate bar.
De Menezes was a victim of terrorism, not a victim of the terrorists. He was a victim of a dangerous climate where the very people who are supposed to protect us in times of crisis have allowed themselves to be frightened and paranoid, have allowed their latent xenophobia to colour their thoughts and their perceptions. An entirely human reaction that might be, ‘under the circumstances’, but it’s one we should be able to control. In this case, it’s obvious we haven’t. And that’s exactly the way the terrorists want it.
Some Related Links:
- Plastic: Metro Police, License To Kill
A good discussion thread, unpicking arguments from all sides.
- The Guardian: Crucial questions over shoot-to-kill policy
Outlining the investigations triggered by the killing of de Menezes.
- John Kampfner: Challenge, don’t emote
The New Stateman’s Kampfner encourages journalists to keep asking the tough questions, especially after events like this.
- Gary Younge: No tails or tridents
The Guardian’s Younge reminds us that appearances, and suspicions, can be deceiving.
- No apologies for knee-jerk posting
Markham holds his own against the bitter-tasting triumphalist reactionism of Richard Waghorne.
- Observer Blog: The facts, please
“Fear and terror spread in the gaps where there is ignorance. Give us the full picture and let us judge for ourselves…”