Taking Stock

by Quinn

The Stockwell shooting was a tragic event, and people are understandably discussing where this leaves the “Shoot to Kill” policy for dealing with suicide bombers. The problem with much of the comment I have read and heard on this matter is that many seem to have jumped to their conclusions the moment they heard the words “police officers have shot…” on the news. Some people’s instant reaction was “Ha! Got a terrorist,” while others thought “Ah! Another bloke with a table leg”, before any further details had emerged.

That it subsequently transpired that the dead man was an innocent Brazilian electrician doesn’t really seem to have shifted many (I don’t know of any) from their original stance. It has of course emboldened those who originally criticised the police, prompting further points arguing that if the police “knew” Jean Charles de Menezes was a suicide bomber, why didn’t they tackle him earlier, the moment he left his flat? Further, if they thought he was packed with volatile chemicals then why did they jump on him to detain him prior to shooting him in the head? Those who initially cheered the shooting have tended to reply that this is a war and accidents will inevitably happen, that in the rough and tumble world of global terrorism some innocent people are going to get shot, and anyway, what was the idiot running away for, and why was he wearing that coat?

What seems to be lacking from either of these positions (and I am not suggesting that these are the only opinions out there) is any sense of empathy for or understanding of the situation, a lack of any attempt to put oneself into the position of either de Menezes or the police.

I can honestly say that I don’t know what I would do if people in plain clothes carrying firearms confronted me, but I suspect I may well panic and make a run for it. Similarly, even if I was aware that the people approaching me were police officers, and yet I knew my visa had run out (as has been suggested), then I may well act in exactly the same way, not for one moment considering that I could be shot as a consequence.

At the same time, how would I have handled the situation if I were a police officer? Perhaps I could have approached de Menezes as he left his flat, but all that may have achieved is to have brought his fatal dash for freedom forward by a few minutes. More likely, the police didn’t know he was a suicide bomber, but he was a suspect, and on following him they became more suspicious and concerned until eventually they felt the need to act (there is also the suggestion that the officers on surveillance weren’t armed, which could have prevented them intervening in the first instance). Now, as to later jumping on a man you believe to be strapped with explosives; this may well seem a foolish act, sat as I am in the calm atmosphere of this room typing away on my PC, but if I thought I was following a suicide bomber as he headed onto a tube train laden with passengers – and if I were far braver than is actually the case – then I can imagine I would take my chances by trying to bring him down rather than just letting him do his worst on the train carriage.

What seems absent from much criticism is an understanding of people’s fallibilities, an intolerance of human error under the most extreme situations. Hence suggestions that by making that fatal error in running away from armed police during the current tense climate, de Menezes was therefore “asking for it”. In some criticisms of the police’s actions (such as by questioning “if the police officers thought he was a suicide bomber, why did they…”) the logical conclusion of the line of reasoning seems to be an implicit suggestion that the police knew de Menezes was an electrician, not a terrorist, but killed him anyway. This is not impossible, but seems a somewhat improbable explanation.

But of course we know that people are fallible; we know that, surely, from our own actions in life, but also from the accounts of the eye witnesses at the incident; one of whom mentioned the infamous “unseasonal” coat, another who stated he saw wires popping out of de Menezes’ jacket, a third who said he heard the detonators of the terrorist’s bomb exploding as he entered the train.

I am left to reflect that, unfortunately, I don’t know how else the police are meant to stop someone they are certain is a suicide bomber other than to use potentially fatal force as a last resort. In accepting this fact, then I also have to accept that mistakes will be made, as the only time you will know for certain that a suspect is a suicide bomber is when he detonates his explosives; in the meantime the officers have to work on reasonable suspicion. Perhaps on further investigation it may well turn out that in this specific case a reasonable suspicion was absent, and it is of course right that this incident is fully looked into, that the police’s actions are scrutinised and questioned, that lessons are learnt and perhaps that procedures are tightened up to try as best as possible to prevent such an event from happening again. That said, I can well imagine that in a future incident, if there are new, more rigorous procedures, and if police officers do act with more caution and discretion (or simply freeze and fail to act decisively) and a suicide bomber subsequently does blow up himself and others, then again the police will be criticised. Human error can work at both ends of the spectrum.

We can speculate all day about what actually happened, informed, as I have said, by our instant responses the initial news story; but until the IPCC have concluded their report I will have to put this all down to a tragic accident, a terrible incident for all parties involved. I am glad I am not a police officer charged with making such decisions; but I am also glad that I was not put in Jean Charles de Menezes position, whose last moments must have been filled with uncomprehending horror.

PostScript: So, are you not afraid, or are you fucking terrified? Six out of my last eight post have been in some way connected to the London terrorist attacks and their aftermath, and I hope that I can move on a bit now and talk about a few different issues. I don’t particularly want to sound like a broken record, although I probably do most of the time anyway. While I am at it, can I suggest some sort of moratorium on “liveblogging” for a while? It has its place, and NoseMonkey’s was very good on the 7th of July for example, but some now seem to be being done more for the sake of it, mixing speculation on the basis of rumours with updates on what Sky News is saying (a service I believe is already ably provided for by, er, Sky).

So the next post from me is likely to be just a picture of my son in his new City away kit; either that or a liveblog of the 2nd test match at Edgbaston. You have been warned.