Sunday, July 24, 2005

Counter-terrorism and the right to life

A chilling example of how terrorist attacks can allow normally high standards to slip to unacceptably low levels - indeed, perhaps to the level of the terrorists themselves - has been provided by the recent killing by plainclothes policemen in London of a Brazilian man on the tube. The man left a house that the police had under surveillance for suspected links to terrorism; this, coupled with the facts that he was wearing a large jacket on a warm day and that he ran when the police ordered him to stop and drew their weapons, seems to have been the only evidence available that the victim presented a threat to the public (would it be overly cynical to suggest his darker skin tone also had a part to play?). Circumstantial in the extreme.

The police have since confirmed that the victim was completely unconnected with the recent terrorist attacks in London.

Even more surprising, if eyewitness accounts prove to be accurate, is the manner of the execution. These state that the police first pushed the victim to the floor, before shooting him five times (in the back). It seems, then, that they had him under their physical control, outnumbered and on the ground, and still felt that five bullets were necessary to ensure the safety of the public. Certainly, we must not forget that the job of the police in such circumstances is fiendishly difficult, as crucial judgement calls must be made within a split second time frame. And, as the Independent notes, their actions in this case were fulyl in line with the rules laid out under "Operation Kratos", Scotland Yard's strategy for dealing with suicide bombers. However, on this occasion they seem to have got it badly wrong - resulting in the public, extra-judicial execution of an entirely innocent man.

This, it seems to me, is the best conclusion that we can reach on the facts as they are available to us at present. Certainly, the police may be justified in taking violent action, even if the victim turns out to be innocent, if only the grounds for suspicion are strong; where they proceed to kill the suspect even when they apparently have him under control, they must be absolutely watertight - not simply that the man is a terrorist, but that he is capable of performing an act of terrorism that only his immediate death can avoid. Such watertight gorund for suspicion at least seem to have been wholly absent from the present case.

Another interesting facet of this incident has been the political rehtorics of blame. Only days after senior government figures dismissed as absurd (even as dangerous) the idea that the illegal war in Iraq had anything to do with the London bombings, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingston (a Labour Party member) argued, in response to the shooting on the tube, that:

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.

We will, according to this, be accepting no responsibility for anything on any grounds. The Metropolitan Police, however, have done so, noting their "full responsibility" for the incident and expressing "deep regrets" to the family of the victim:

We are now satisfied that he was not connected with the incidents of Thursday, 21 July 2005... For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy and one that the Metropolitan Police service regrets.

It may not, however, be a tragedy; it may well be a crime, and we need a full, public criminal investigation in order to establish this. Otherwise, we run the very real risk of turning running away from the police - for those of "different" skin colour at least - into a capital offence; and worse, one in which no right to a hearing, fair or otherwise, exists.

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