Monday, July 25, 2005

The War on Terror claims another victim

Another "glorious" chapter of The War on Terror was written the other day with the execution of an innocent man at Stockwell tube station. It's equally absurd to blame the victim for his own demise as it is to exculpate the plain-clothes policemen (or, more likely, special forces operatives) from any moral responsibilty for this tragic mistake.

Last time I checked I was inhabiting an enlightened democracy in which it wasn't a capital offence to live in the same residential block as a suspected criminal; a reassuringly sane world in which wearing an overcoat on a hot day didn't constitute a declaration of readiness to meet one's maker; a place where possessing a propensity to run away when chased didn't merit summary execution. I know things have moved quite a bit since those halcyon days of, oh, all of 3 weeks ago but being shot 5 times in the head at point-blank range seems a fairly excessive price to pay for jumping a turnstile.

Believe me, I'm desperately trying to get up to speed with the rapidly-evolving zeitgeist (let's just call it The New Barbarism) but my rapidly deteriorating brain is still struggling to comprehend a prevailing mood which proposes that termination with extreme prejudice "Mafia-style" is proportionate payback for failure to respond to a Police, Stop! command.

Now maybe it's just me but I would have thought there would be little or no point in dispatching undercover operatives to stake out, and when deemed appropriate terminate, suspected terrorists if they're just going to give the game away by yelling Police, Stop! all the time. Might as well just dress them up as regulation Bobbies and get them to shout Allo, 'allo, 'allo! and Evening, all! as polite precursors to a final Do you feel lucky, punk? before injecting five doses of hot lead straight into the suspect's cerebellum.

In these days of shape-shifting law enforcement it's, I'd assume, extremely unlikely that the victim was challenged with a Police, Stop! command. An explosive-laden terrorist in a public place would, presumably, regard just such a greeting as the perfect pretext to detonate his load.

It's highly possible that this poor guy realised he was being followed but had no idea by whom and why. Covert surveillance is by definition covert. It would be counter-productive for the operatives to disclose themselves to the suspect at any stage of the operation. It seems likely that the suspect realised he was being tailed and, quite understandably, panicked, ran and a chase ensued. It's possible that the operatives in question were visibly armed but eyewitnesses testified that the execution was performed with a handgun so it's by no means certain. A well-trained counter-terrorist operative working to a shoot-to-kill brief (close range hit rather than sniper) would, presumably, only draw his weapon at the last possible moment 1) to minimise the possibility of detonation before successful elimination of the terrorist suspect & 2) to minimise collateral panic amongst the general public which would, inevitably, lessen the likelihood of a "clean" operation, increase danger to the general public and further increase the likelihood of detonation.

It could, plausibly, be argued that the "law enforcement" attack dogs were only doing their job and that the fault properly resided higher up the chain of command. If so, then Police Intelligence (in this case at least, conforming to it's stereotypical representation as an oxymoron) should have been capable of profiling the terrorist suspect(s) under surveillance with a far greater degree of accuracy. No police operation with any pretence towards legitimacy could possibly countenance a margin of error which extended to the elimination of members of the general public who just happened to live in the same area, and who just happened to correspond to an, ostensibly, similar ethno-cultural profile, as the suspect(s).

It could equally plausibly be argued that the fault didn't lie with Intelligence and that the attack dogs were just tailing this guy on a hunch (either they were given a fairly broad remit or were acting, to a greater or lesser extent, autonomously) and that the routine operation took on it's own testosterone-fuelled momentum after the suspect panicked. In the latter case the psychological suitability of the operative(s) concerned to discharge their duties in a professional, proportionate and responsible manner is a suitable subject for inquiry.

The Rule of Law in this country has always been predicated on the principle that it's better for ten guilty men to go unpunished than for one innocent man to be imprisoned. It's logical to extrapolate the conclusion that the death of an innocent man can never be considered an acceptable price for the prosecution of the guilty. Even pernicious modern phenomena such as suicide bombers are incapable of re-configuring this basic Arithmetic of Justice.

The assertion that it's better to kill one innocent man than run the risk of losing many more innocent victims to a terrorist attack is a false dichotomy. Killing innocents clearly doesn't save lives; on the contrary it costs lives and it empowers The New Barbarism. The natural extension of this logic is the proposition that the elimination of the entire human race will result in the elimination of terrorism: true but the collateral damage is somewhat disproportionate. This is exactly the same anti-humanist calculus employed by the terrorists: human life is expendable in the pursuit of their objectives.

If we're going to throw away our heritage of due legal process, disregard long-standing constitutional checks and balances on the executive power of the State and empower it's officers to administer summary capital punishment (we're not talking self-defence here) to suspected criminals (a power denied to the judiciary even after due deliberation of the evidence) then we better, at least, try to make sure that those who are chosen, and choose, to discharge this onerous burden are constrained by a legal framework which obligates them to display a higher standard of care than seems to have been exhibited in this case.

The alternative is chaos.


eugene ionesco said...

It now transpires that the authorities shot the unfortunate Jean Charles de Menezes no less than 7 times in the head. Not so much shoot-to-kill as shoot-to-obliterate-from-the-face-of-the-earth. Sounds more and more like special forces rather than police. Their modus operandi is to strike terror into the hearts of the terrorists; to fight barbarism with barbarism-cubed.

The disgraceful campaign to discredit Mr. de Menezes gathered pace with the dissemination of disinformation regarding an, allegedly, expired visa. To even imply that his visa status contributed to his own demise is reprehensible nonsense.

The story which was originally leaked about Mr. de Menezes vaulting over a turnstile to flee the "police" has now been contradicted by evidence which suggests he entered the system with a valid ticket.

Unsurprisingly, not one witness has testified to hearing the Stop, Police! warning which the authorities and the media, initially, tried to lead us to believe was issued to Mr. de Menezes.

It has now been reported by a variety of, relatively reliable, news agencies that the Metropolitan Police, and their counter-terrorist colleagues, have been trained, since 9/11, to implement a different, and secret, strategy: i.e. one of not issuing warnings to suspected suicide bombers in public places, such as tube stations, to minimise the possibility of detonation; a fairly predictable strategy which I, speculatively, alluded to in the above article.

What is indisputable is that the police and/or special forces acted either 1) on the basis of bad intelligence or 2) on the basis of bad judgement. Either way, they are morally, and legally, culpable.

The executive's, unilateral, stealthy annexation of pernicious powers is a profoundly worrying development. Sadly, the majority of the public are gullible enough to gulp down the "shoot-to-kill-to-protect" placebo that the pushers in government, and their sycophants in the media, force us to swallow. Shooting an innocent man protects no-one and diminishes us all.

It is not just prospective terrorists who heard those shots ring out loud and clear: the general public now know that, if they decide to travel by public transport in London, they are not only at risk from the terrorists, they are also at risk from police (and special forces operatives) who, it seems, have been given carte blanche, not only to carry guns, but also to terminate with extreme prejudice on the basis of mere suspicion.

The terrorists will be relieved to learn that the authorities are happy to do their job for them.

chiron said...