In yesterday’s and today’s coverage on the Metropolitan Police’s guilty verdict for ‘health and safety’ violations over the killing of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes [there’s got to be some sort of grim irony that they were done on health and safety, of all things!], no one seems to have raised the question of whether the security forces’ shoot-to-kill policy towards people they suspect of being on the point of committing a terrorist outrage needs to be re-examined. There was much discussion on this theme in the immediate wake of the blunder. But it’s all gone silent now. Why?
Let’s think about it logically. One of the justifications made by the police for their delayed attempts to stop suspects under observation, such as Menezes in this instance, is that it’s operationally important to follow where they go, who they link up with and what they do in order to gather vital intelligence and allow them to incriminate themselves. But effectively, in principle and definitely in practice, in Menezes’ case, this means waiting to intervene until the balance of certainty tips in favour of judging that the suspect really is on the point of doing something to threaten the lives of those around him. But if you wait until this point, you let a situation arise where, one way or another, something life-threatening is going to happen: either the terrorist blows himself up, or the security forces have to use force (shoot to kill) to stop him, and thereby endanger others in the same way that the suspect might have endangered them.
And what I don’t understand is why, even in circumstances where the security forces have deliberately left things effectively too late to avoid violence, they feel they have to use conventional bullets to bring things to a close. Aren’t there stun guns or tranquillisers that can be fired to have the same incapacitating effect? Surely, the whole point of acting in these situations is to prevent avoidable loss of innocent life. Isn’t it more consistent with this aim to use weapons that achieve the same effect without creating the result you’re trying to avoid?
For me, this sorry episode illustrates one of the ironies of the ‘war on terror’: that when the threat level is talked up and the climate of fear is heated up still further by the very people who are responsible for the public’s protection, this then justifies actions and engineers results that are precisely what the terrorists want. These consequences include the killing of innocent people; violent or unjust actions by the authorities towards suspected individuals or groups, particularly Muslims; a general clamp-down on civil liberties; and the creation of an atmosphere of terror, precisely, which is a win-win for the terrorists: either the government is pressurised into backing down from a particular position (e.g. the Spanish people after the Madrid bombings voting for a party that then withdrew Spanish forces from Iraq); or, on the contrary, the government is pushed into an attitude of defiance and hostility that whips up anti-Islamic sentiment and consolidates foreign-policy positions (e.g. support for the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan), which the terrorists and their sympathisers can then use for anti-Western propaganda purposes and as a recruiting sergeant.
And the thing about Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police boss, is that he has consistently talked up the terror threat, which is clearly in part a tactic to condition the public into being more tolerant about mistakes and injustices that are committed in what Blair and others involved in the security effort still like to characterise as a war situation. In fact, Blair or one of his allies (I can’t remember which) was on about the extremely high ongoing terror threat only two or three weeks ago, just as the Menezes case was about to begin.
This is not to say that one should not feel sympathy for the police officers involved in incidents like this, who do have to make split-second decisions that will inevitably result in a limited number of mistakes. But surely, the tactics and the shoot-to-kill policy do need looking at: delaying interventions until shootings become ‘inevitable’ (but are they, even in these situations?).
But one also has to feel sympathy, in this case, for the innocent victim and his family. It was Blair’s duty to protect him as much as his officers and his own position. The more he goes on about the extreme circumstances and atmosphere of fear the police were operating under – which, to some extent, he’s been responsible for making worse through his careless talk – the more you sense that he’s not truly sorry for what happened. And if he’s not sorry, is he exercising a proper duty of care towards the public? And if he isn’t exercising this duty, should he still be in his job?