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The London Tube shooting again

August 25th, 2005

The news about the shooting of an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes, on the London Underground just gets worse. We’ll have to wait for the results of the current inquiry, and possibly longer before any firm conclusions can be reached (many recent inquiries in Britain have been politicised to the point of whitewash, so there are no guarantees here). Still, it’s hard to conceive of any explanation that doesn’t involve serious stuffups and multiple layers of coverup, going up as far as Metropolitan Police Chief Ian Blair.

One point that hasn’t been mentioned or not much is the implications of this tragedy for any assessment of the anti-terrorism effort. In a case as public as this one, and with a victim as obviously innocent as Mr de Menezes, it was impossible to keep the truth from coming out sooner or later, but it still took nearly a month. Suppose that the victim had been a Muslim – it seems certain that he would have been labelled a terrorist, at least by the method of undenied leaks used to accuse de Menezes of being responsible for his own death.

And for those prone to argue that we shouldn’t be so concerned about a single death in a situation where terrorists have killed dozens, what about failures in the opposite direction? Suppose that in the course of recent operations, mistakes were made that allowed accomplices or masterminds of the bomb plots to escape. How likely is that such things would ever come to light, given the culture of coverup that has been revealed here? And if failures don’t come to light, they won’t be corrected.

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  1. derrida derider
    August 25th, 2005 at 09:23 | #1

    I felt like screaming at John Howard on TV (not for the first time!) when I saw his immediate reaction to the shooting was “well governments have to support their police”.

    No, John. Governments have to ensure their police are effective. That means they have to resource, train and empower them well, but it also means they have to insist on the full accountability that must go with empowerment. As dsquared says, you get the error rate you’re prepared to tolerate.

    Unaccountable police forces *will* become brutal, incompetent and corrupt (three qualities that are generally found together). Blair’s Home Secretary should insist on a public inquiry and should make it clear to the senior police involved that he expects their resignations in the wake of it. Otherwise he will soon find himself trying to cover up more such scandals – and as John points out they could easily be in an even more politically embarrasssing direction.

  2. David
    August 25th, 2005 at 09:35 | #2

    The response I get from most people I’ve talked to is “there must be more to it than that”. Their unquestioning trust in officialdom means that Mr de Menezes’ death is proof of guilt. All the recent revelations about the true facts of the case hasn’t dented the faith of those I’ve talked to again. Sigh.

  3. still working it out
    August 25th, 2005 at 10:06 | #3

    Incidents like these are the main reason I am so worried about the extra powers that the Howard government is so keen to give to police. I believe in the integrity of our police forces and trust their good intentions in the use of these new powers.

    But what about when they make a mistake? Or they are a bit lazy on a case one day? These powers make it very easy to cover up mistakes and incompetence. I think we can all see how even very good officers might react poorly in a high profile case where they are offered the possibility of covering up honest but unforgivable mistakes by making unsubstantiated or false claims about witness’s who have had their ability to defend themselves serverely curtailed by these new laws.

  4. Katz
    August 25th, 2005 at 10:14 | #4

    Ah, yes.

    The government chains us up “for our own good”. And some folks caress these fetters as if they were their most treasured possessions.

    Pathetic.

    And productive of a mental and emotional surrender that is one of the most destructive threats to liberty:

    “If you’re innocent you’ve got nothing to fear.”

    Risible.

  5. August 25th, 2005 at 10:52 | #5

    What about the people who suggest it’s a “false flag operation”? My first kneejerk reaction is that they would have to be wrong. Because the UK government would never do such a thing, right in its heartland. But then perhaps I’m being naive. What do others think of the False Flag Operation idea? Is it just too far fetched? or do we leave it on the table?

  6. Albatross
    August 25th, 2005 at 11:19 | #6

    Well Helen the people who actually carried out the Guilford and Birmigham bombings for which the 4 and 6 were wrongfully convicted have never been found. (Not to mention our very own Hilton bombing which has strong resonances with those cases.)

    Plus there were the Dublin and Monaghan bombings on 17th May 1974 in which 33 people died and over 250 were injured which almost certainly had the active support if not participation of the British security forces.

  7. wilful
    August 25th, 2005 at 11:28 | #7

    Well I had to google “false flag operation” (excuse my ignorance) and came across websites stating that the September 11 attacks were a mossad plot, which is a bad start… People who suggest vast conspiracies really overestimate the cleverness and capacity of their ‘intelligence’ or ‘security’ agencies. Trust me, they’re really not that competent. I think the far simpler and more credible explanation would be that it was a cock-up of the highest order.

    As for those who suggest that a few innocents have to be shot eleven times from point blank range to secure the rest of us, I say rubbish. If you want to engage in dismal arithmetic, terrorism is a far more improbable way to die than smoking or skiing or bushwalking or all sorts of common activities, but the perception is that it’s just not fair, it’s not just or right. To me, getting blown away by trigger happy coppers is even worse and more hideous than dying by a suicide bomber. Particularly if (as is likely) they are never brought to justice. Frankly, if the story on de Menezes is true, nothing less than a murder charge for the officer that pulled the trigger would satisfy me.

  8. derrida derider
    August 25th, 2005 at 14:43 | #8

    With respect, Helen, your response is a perfect illustration of David’s and Katz’s points. That widespread willingness to trust “those whom it hath pleased the Almighty to put in authority over us” frightens me far more than a few alienated young men with bombs.

  9. Hal9000
    August 25th, 2005 at 16:44 | #9

    It used to be the golden thread of British justice was its willingness to allow a dozen guilty parties to go free rather than unjustly punish an innocent individual. Perhaps this was the golden age, and we can look nostalgically back on it in the dire years ahead.

  10. ab
    August 25th, 2005 at 17:29 | #10

    No, Hal. It’ll be ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ for the foreseeable future.

  11. Ian Gould
    August 25th, 2005 at 21:23 | #11

    When Menezes’ death was first reported there was a widespread and generally unreasoning positve reaction – if he hadn’t actually been a terrorist he must, at least, have been acting like a terrorist and therefore brought his death on himself.

    Now it appears that this was not the case – and we are seeing an equally widespread and, I fear, equally unreasoning backlash.

    The police in Londond were performing an extraordinarily difficult taks under enormous stress, it appears they made a tragic mistake.

    Having seen the initial rush to judgment that condemned Menezes, let’s not repeat the error in judging the police officers involved.

  12. abb1
    August 26th, 2005 at 03:39 | #12

    I think I’m with Ian on this one: one incident doesn’t necessarily indicate or prove anything. Time will show.

  13. wilful
    August 26th, 2005 at 09:37 | #13

    It’s not a tragic mistake when blatant lies and coverups are used to attempt to hide the truth.

  14. still working it out
    August 26th, 2005 at 10:06 | #14

    What the police did does not worry me too much. Mistakes like that are inevitable under those circumstances and I for one am not going to judge the police officers involved. Their job is difficult enough as it is.

    It is the apparent cover up that is the problem.

  15. Katz
    August 26th, 2005 at 11:16 | #15

    SWIO is correct.

    When all this does hit the fan, the police who pulled the trigger and possible the police who processed and passed on incorrect information regarding Menezes are likely to take the fall.

    The cover-up, not performed under conditions of stress or physical danger, but concocted in a wood-panelled office somewhere in Whitehall over a cup of tea and a Civil Service biscuit, will be declared ultra vires on the grounds of “national security”.

  16. wilful
    August 26th, 2005 at 11:49 | #16

    Although I agree that it’s a deeper and more significant scandal to try and cover up what actually happened, I’m still not prepared to let the copper who pulled the trigger off scot free. If he’s too stressed by the job he shouldn’t have a powerful handgun. It’s still inexcusable that somebody who looks vaguely possibly approximately at a distance a little bit like a wanted terrorist can get executed, having (apparently) exhibited no suspicious behaviour.

    It’s not just a matter of training and an honest mistake, that copper did something terrible, which I’m sure will haunt him for the rest of his life, but so it should.

    Still, at least it was someone vaguely brown they got, not an anglo, so we must be a little bit safer, right?

  17. Andrew Reynolds
    August 26th, 2005 at 16:12 | #17

    Personally, if I had been told, by people I trust, that the person I was following probably had a bomb belt on and was going off to kill innocent people and that I was authorised to shoot them, I would probably act the same way. To me, at least, on the facts as they appear to be now, the fault lies further up the chain, but let’s wait to see where the chain of evidence leads.

  18. Andrew Reynolds
    August 26th, 2005 at 16:17 | #18

    btw, Katz. It would not be ‘ultra vires’ – that is ‘beyond the power of’. It would not be outside their power to release the information.

  19. August 26th, 2005 at 17:44 | #19

    That was my first response Andrew – running man, bulky coat..

    But now it seems he was overpowered, the police were in intimate physical contact with him, and they could tell he had absolutely no possibility of carrying a bomb.

    Were they expecting his head to explode? Oh, that’s right, it did..

    Let’s assume, in the tradition of so many thought experiments, that he was in fact a terrorist, who they had caught unarmed on the Tube. Surely, when more senior members of the polis heard that this man had been killed rather than taken in for interrogation, they would have been aghast?

    I venture to suggest, in that instance, that they would have pulled this man from his gun-wielding position in public and left him to rot in a one person police station on a peninsula sticking out from the Isle of Man towards Iceland.

    If they hadn’t charged him in some internal disciplinary procedure.

    They will have to charge him, and his only defence will be some kind of temporary insanity. No sleep, too much coffee, too many Dirty Harry movies at home on the couch sitting next to Fang the Wolfhound.

  20. Ian Gould
    August 26th, 2005 at 18:45 | #20

    >It’s still inexcusable that somebody who looks vaguely possibly approximately at a distance a little bit like a wanted terrorist can get executed, having (apparently) exhibited no suspicious behaviour.

    The initial story given to the media was that Menezes had been tracked from a suspected terrorist hide-out.

    It’s quite possible that the police officers plural who shot Menezes were told that this was the case – so this may be a case of miscommunication/mistaken identity rather than police wilfully and maliciously shooting a man based on no more than his skin color.

  21. detribe
    August 27th, 2005 at 09:08 | #21

    Prof Q needs to be more consistent: he worries about politicisation of this issue leading to whitewash, but when it comes to killing of people from malaria due efforts that amount to banning of DDT he falls over backwards in previous posts to argue that no harm has been done, ignoring for example the recent resurgent epidemics in South Africa. He doesnt recognise that accepting 1g DDT in a mud house is not the same as 1 tonne on a field.

  22. gordon
    August 27th, 2005 at 11:11 | #22

    Prof. Quiggin says: “We’ll have to wait for the results of the current inquiry, … before any firm conclusions can be reached”. So far as I know, neither the Metropolitan Police nor the British Govt. have denied the leaked story that Menezes was not running, was not wearing a heavy coat, was under restraint etc. when he was shot. The fact of non-denial leads me to a direct conclusion right now. It seems that Prof. Quiggin is getting “firm conclusion” mixed up with “consensus”. There will never be a consensus on this. My firm conclusion, similar to that of Derrida Derida, is that we have more to fear from the anti-terrorist industry than we have to fear from terrorists.

    And (as Prof. Quiggin has said on more than one occasion) more to fear from the traffic, too.

  23. August 28th, 2005 at 23:07 | #23

    My response to recent events was to write to the ‘organ grinder’.

    Dear Mr Howard
    There are a number of Australians who are becoming increasingly alarmed that this government is more concerned with the appearance of ‘doing something about security threats to our country’ than with sound policies of community acceptance and inclusion.
    The summit with Muslim leaders was supposed to showcase this government’s outreach to the Muslim community in Australia, to reassure them of their valued place and to enlist their assistance in discouraging what is termed “extremist tendencies�. Yet the summit had the opposite effect from that which the public were told. It disenfranchised the majority of young Muslims who were born in Australia. Meanwhile “extremist� preaching from faiths other than Islam are flourishing in this country without impediment. I do have a problem with this “e� word too. It is an unfair label to put on anyone in a democratic society.
    A series of careless and insensitive remarks by you quickly revealed an agenda of getting community leaders to spread paranoia and suspicion through this frightened community for the amusement of Australia’s easily impressed xenophobes and ‘shock-jocks’, who rightly picked up the signals you gave as a license to hurl insults and spit upon ordinary Muslim women going about their shopping. Was that what is known as an ‘unintended consequence’?
    Then we had the ‘knuckle-duster’ tough talking of your Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson was telling Muslims to “clear off�. This is not how you gain people’s support, show respect for their culture and settle their fears. Brendan Nelson’s comments just set the other hares running.
    So, when Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Panopoulos advocated that “The headscarf is being used as a sort of iconic item of defiance,” according to Ms Bishop and should be banned in state schools, I felt obliged to write this letter to you. I am concerned that, on the one hand we could see a very serious and nasty attack on Muslims that will be an eternal shame to Australia, or we may see a ‘blow-back’ incident, where a young Australian Muslim decided that the insults were all too much to keep taking in silence. I am only glad that the federal government still has not got its hands on our state schools. Though I know you are working on this.
    It is well acknowledged that Australian Muslims make a remarkable contribution to this country disproportionate to their numbers and that this community and has lived peacefully in our midst for many years. They have been exceedingly patient and polite regarding the hostility shown towards them, and practice a conservatism that stands in direct contradiction to the suspicion in which they are held, increasingly with your encouragement.
    Let us not forget Australian support for the state of Israel, no matter what the Israeli Army does to Palestinians in the occupied territories. Even in the UN, your government have shown an unparalleled support for the building of the ‘security wall’ that is being built on confiscated Palestinian land.
    So many distinguished legal people, including Justice (retired) Mary Goudron, the Secretary General of the UN, Kofi Annan, and others have confirmed that the war in Iraq was illegal and has caused great harm to the people of Iraq, yet you deny that Muslims would be angered by this act of militarist aggression. Most Australians, like the young woman you visited in hospital in London, know without doubt that your government makes our lives more dangerous at home and overseas by pursuing your current policies. At least 60% of British citizens agree that the war in Iraq is a threat to our security.
    There have been some clumsy and embarrassing attempts to recruit regional governments to fight the ‘war on terror’ – like your claims to be a ‘Deputy Sheriff in the Pacific’ and claiming the right to misuse our military forces to pre-emptively attack our neighbours. It is not important what smiling political leaders say in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. It is important what the ordinary people say. This arrogance would deeply offend Asians, with no doubt at all.
    Your policies of mandatory detention of asylum seekers are a signal to our region that Australia is not ‘the land of the fair go’ for Muslims. According to David Jull, “Afghan ‘illegal entrants’ arrived with Malaysian Airways Business Class briefcases�. Just ask David Jull if he said this at an election meeting in Paradise Point, Gold Coast, Queensland. I am sure he will remember what I said to him. No one knows how many such deliberate lies were told by your party’s candidates to make sure they got across the line. Was this a clever way to win the 2004 election – by generating racism? The result of this attitude is the violence and abuse that asylum seekers have received in your horrific camps.
    So, if Muslims are not really a threat to either our ethnic identity or our national security, could it be that we are actually a threat to them. Well, yes! Do some Australians feel ashamed that our government shows so little respect and treat people with such disdain? Yes again. We wish you would see before it is too late that divisive policies are a dangerous path. It is time to change.
    Willy Bach

    MP urges school headscarf ban
    Federal Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop has advocated a ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves at public schools.
    Ms Bishop has backed the possibility after it was raised by Victorian Liberal MP Sophie Panopoulos.
    The Muslim Women’s Association argues girls should be free to follow their religious beliefs at school.
    But Ms Bishop says the scarf has become a symbol of a clash of cultures.
    “The headscarf is being used as a sort of iconic item of defiance,” she told Channel Seven.
    “I’m talking about in state schools. If people are in Islamic schools and that’s their uniform, that’s fine. In private life, that’s fine.

  24. Sean
    August 29th, 2005 at 12:04 | #24

    My understanding is that the surveilance officer, who was supposed to ID the actual suspect if said suspect left the block of flats (in which Mr Menezes and presumably several other innocent people lived), had to go for a wee.

    Given the stakes, I would have thought a double staggered picquet might not be too much to ask.

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