Shoot to Kill, and other remedies?

Returning to London after nearly three weeks away in France on holiday (but reading the same day’s English newspapers as well as some of the French almost every day while away), one feels somewhat better able to see the issues over the London bombings, Islam, and terrorism in perspective.  Most of these are pretty fully discussed in my last (pre-France) post and especially in the comments on it, of which there are 48 at the last count, by no means all of them by me and by no means all agreeing with me, which is how it should be.  But I have not yet offered for comment my reading of the new security measures now being proposed by the government (some at the request of the police), or of the lamentable episode of the innocent Brazilian killed on a tube train by plain-clothes police, an event already being widely denounced (including in comments on the previous post in this blog) as a dire example of fatal over-reaction and panic by the police — a view which I see as wrong-headed to the point of perversity, for the reasons set out later.

I surprise myself by finding the new measures proposed by the government in response to the bombings remarkably modest in scope: certainly not the frontal assault on what’s left of our civil liberties that I had gloomily expected.  Perhaps the most controversial is the suggested extension of the period in which terrorist suspects can be held for questioning without being charged from 14 days to 3 months.  The police point out that it can take much longer than 14 days to scrutinise the entire contents of a computer hard disk where the evidence to support a charge may well be concealed behind passwords and attempted deletions.  Other investigations may similarly be necessarily quite protracted.  In the special circumstances of terrorism, there are obviously cogent arguments against allowing a suspect to remain at liberty while this kind of supporting evidence is ferreted out and analysed.  To describe such a provision as tantamount to internment seems to me far-fetched.  Suspects may be held without charge for investigation for much longer than 14 days or even than 3 months in several continental European countries which operate an investigating magistrate system, and the difference between our two systems for investigation doesn’t appear to affect the arguments for and against holding suspects for this kind of length of time before they are charged.  We shall need to scrutinise the small print with great care to ensure that there is a degree of independent scrutiny of detentions for questioning and investigation to make sure that the grounds for suspicion are sufficiently strong to justify this kind of short-term detention, and that the police are not using the power casually or at random.  But subject to some such safeguards, I think it would be unreasonable to object to the extension proposed, despite the fact that the Guardian has already condemned it editorially.

 The main other proposal is to create new offences of ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’, ‘incitement to terrorism’, and the provision of training for terrorism.  Even the formidable civil rights solicitor Louise Christian, in her Guardian article of 30 July, was restrained in her criticisms of these proposals, rightly warning about the possible implications and questioning whether existing laws might not be adequate to cover most such activities, concluding uncontroversially that —

"We need independent-minded members of parliament who will break free of any misconceived political consensus and stop laws going through that will create injustice and risk recruiting terrorists."

So far, then, most reasonable observers, however strongly committed to the preservation of our historic liberties in the face of the terrorist threat and the excuse it gives to power-hungry politicians and policemen to extend their already exorbitant powers, will probably accept that the new measures now proposed are generally acceptable, subject to careful scrutiny of the small print.  And we should be hugely relieved that the new proposals have been explicitly de-coupled from the promised scrutiny of the deplorable ‘control orders’ legislation hustled with difficulty through parliament last March only because of a commitment to a thorough review and opportunity for amendment or repeal early next year (2006).  A different Home Secretary might well have seized the opportunity afforded by the London bombings this month (July 2005) to rush parliament into bringing forward the control orders review and making them permanent, at a time when it would have required special courage on the part of MPs to oppose their entrenchment in our security system. 

Which brings us to the unfortunate Brazilian.  Even the usually sensible Mary Ann Sieghart, in her Times column of 28 July, ridiculed the justification advanced by the police for their action in shooting in the head the man they believed was probably on the point of detonating a bomb on a crowded tube train:

‘AFTER the terrible shooting of the innocent Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, I’ve been pondering a list of crimes that now seem to warrant summary execution by armed police as a punishment.

“Wearing a padded coat in a built-up area,” is apparently good enough justification. “Failing to buy a ticket before entering a Tube train,” has to be added to the charge list. Worst, for all Asian or East African Londoners these days: “Carrying your gym kit in a rucksack on public transport." ‘

Wittily put, but fair?  The answer hinges on whether the police had serious grounds for believing that the Brazilian was about to explode a bomb that would have killed them, many tube passengers and himself, and that the risk of killing an innocent man was outweighed by the risk that many more innocent people were in imminent danger of being killed unless the police acted immediately to prevent the detonation of the presumed bomb.  What were these grounds?  According to various witnesses (although some of the facts are denied), (a) the man came out of a house that the police knew or suspected was being used by terrorists and which was under surveillance, (b) despite the warm weather he was wearing a coat of some description which could have concealed a bomb strapped to his waist, (c) he began to make his way to a tube station previously involved in a bombing incident, (d) when the police identified  themselves as policemen and ordered him to stop for questioning, he disobeyed the order and ran to the tube station, and (e) he vaulted over the ticket barrier and threw himself onto a tube train standing at the platform.  The police, catching up with him on the train, had a split second to decide whether to give him an opportunity to press a button to detonate a bomb, or to kill him before he could do so.  There was no middle way.   They could not shoot to wound but not to kill:  that would have given him time to detonate a bomb.  They could not fire at his body rather than at his head:  that might itself have set off the bomb.   In those circumstances, what would you have done that the police didn’t do?

Perhaps the official enquiry into the tragedy will reveal that the facts were otherwise than as summarised above and that the decision of the police will accordingly appear in a different light — either more favourably or less so.  Until then, I suggest that the only fair-minded verdict must be that the police acted correctly;  indeed, that they had no real alternative.  If the man had indeed been a bomber, and, benefiting from the hesitation of the police, had had the half-second necessary to detonate his bomb, killing perhaps forty or fifty people as well as himself, the police, who had been chasing him and who had had the opportunity to stop him exploding his bomb, would have been universally blamed for their failure to do so.  Of course, being blamed for the mass murder would have been the least of the coppers’ problems, since they would all have been dead, too.  

PS:  In the same column Mary Ann Sieghart makes the interesting point that, according to a recent  Daily Telegraph poll, the proportion of Muslim men condemning western society as decadent and immoral, so that Muslims should "seek to bring it to an end", and denying any sense of loyalty to Britain, was three times as great as the proportion of Muslim women holding the same view.  Could Mary Ann be right to infer from this remarkable statistic that one of the principal features of western society to which a significant number of Muslim men (but not women) object is the status and rights of women in the west and the constraints that western society places on the right of men to "subjugate their womenfolk in the way that they can in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Somalia"?

Brian
(Back in the Tooting front line)

7 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes on Friday, 22 July 2005 raises legitimate questions about the actions of police officers when faced with potential suicide bombers. Officers have to protect the public while ensuring that their actions are lawful; actions that may directly and intentionally cause the death of suspects. The IPCC has recognised this in its press release of Monday, 25 July 2005. In this press release the Chairman of the IPCC was reported as saying:

    “Firearms officers have a unique and awesome responsibility. I believe they and the public accept that they must be accountable for how they exercise that responsibility. But I think both the police service and public expect that the process of accountability should be proportionate and fair and that those who judge — with hindsight and in the comfort of an office — the actions firearms officers take, when split second, life and death decisions have to be made, do so with great care and a degree of humility.”

    and I think most people would agree with his sentiments. There are, however, two incontrovertible facts: Jean Charles de Menezes was innocent and he was shot dead. I acknowledge this last statement is made with the benefit of hindsight. Were the police officers and those who were presumably in overall command of this operation acting lawfully and were they correct? I would answer my own questions with ‘To be decided’ and ‘No’ respectively.

    As to the events leading up to the shooting we will have to await the IPCC investigation but, as Brian alludes to, the facts are by no means clear-cut. Recent newspaper reports from the Sctosman, Guardian and Sunday Times throw doubt on the chain of events:

    (a) the man came out of a house that the police knew or suspected was being used by terrorists and which was under surveillance: De Menezes lived in a block of flats under surveillance as a suspected bombers’ hideout, therefore there must have been initial doubt as to his involvement.

    (b) despite the warm weather he was wearing a coat of some description which could have concealed a bomb strapped to his waist: His family have now been told he was in fact wearing a denim jacket.

    (c) he began to make his way to a tube station previously involved in a bombing incident: Prior to arriving at Stockwell Underground station Jean Charles de Menezes took a bus. If there were such concerns as to the possibility of him being a suicide bomber why was he not stopped at this stage?

    (d) when the police identified themselves as policemen and ordered him to stop for questioning, he disobeyed the order and ran to the tube station: Just days before he was allegedly stopped by police in a random search who examined his documents and electrician’s tool bag, he didn’t run then. Senior police sources have confirmed that the officers involved in the operation that led to the shooting would not have needed to shout a warning before firing. Was a warning given?

    (e) he vaulted over the ticket barrier and threw himself onto a tube train standing at the platform: Initial witness accounts suggested he had vaulted over the ticket barrier at Stockwell station, but police now say he had in fact used his weekly Travelcard to get through. It now appears that the description of someone jumping over the barriers could in fact have been of a police officer in pursuit of Jean Charles de Menezes.

    There are some important questions as to the conduct of the surveillance operation & final apprehension to be answered.

  2. Brian says:

    Patrick,

    Thank you for these highly pertinent comments. I entirely accept that there are many points of fact that need to be cleared up before we can arrive at a firm view of the rights and wrongs of this sad affair. Another recently raised question is the apparent facial similarities between the Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes who was killed and the suspect in the failed bombings who is currently held in Italy awaiting what now passes for extraditioin between EU member states. But as you rightly say, other factual matters need to be clarified: especially whether the police did or did not identify themselves to de Menezes as policemen and order him to stop running and answer their questions. Until we know the answers to these and other questions, it’s impossible, I submit, to arrive at a definite verdict on the conduct of the police. My appeal is that we should not jump to a premature conclusion that the shooting was unjustified in all the circumstances as they were known to the police at the time. In requiring our policemen to make virtually instantaneous life-and-death decisions of this kind, involving an instant calculation of the respective gravity of conflicting risks, we impose a terrible responsibility on them, one which few of us would willingly accept ourselves, and they are entitled to the assumption that they will exercise it conscientiously and judiciously, unless and until there is compulsive evidence to the contrary. I have not read or heard anything so far that points unmistakably to the police having acted in this case irresponsibly or without due consideration of the consequences of the rival courses of action open to them.

    I think it’s also worth mentioning that the shock, anger and indignation over the death of Jean Charles de Menezes in Brazil itself, while inevitable and understandable, need to be set against the incidence of killings of mostly innocent Brazilians by the Brazilian police, on a scale that dwarfs anything that we have known in Britain:

    “Brazilian police are often accused of murder, torture and other crimes. Veja, a weekly newspaper, reported this month that 15,000 police officers, or 3% of the national total, are currently charged with serious crime. Even when ostensibly fighting crime rather than committing it, the police often shoot first and ask questions later. In Sao Paulo, the most populous state, the number of killings by the military police (who despite their name and weaponry, act as a general constabulary) hit a peak of 1,421 in 1992. … Granted, the police often face armed and violent criminals. But there is plenty of gratuitous police violence, and one big reason is that the perpetrators usually get away with it.”

    (From a website report)

    “Police held over Brazil killings: Protest against killings in Nova Iguacu
    The killings have caused alarm among residents. Eleven Brazilian police officers have been arrested in connection with the killing of 30 people in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, authorities say. Four of the officers are suspected of direct involvement in last Thursday’s massacre, said Rio’s top security official Marcelo Itagiba. Two officers were held on Sunday, but deny any part in the killing. Officials suspect the seemingly-random murders were revenge for the arrest of eight policemen over another killing.”

    (BBC report)

    I don’t suggest for a moment that our own police should be judged by the standards of behaviour of their Brazilian counterparts. But the reactions in Brazil to this virtually isolated incident in Britain, however tragic, perhaps benefit from being seen in perspective.

    Brian

  3. Patrick says:

    “…the suspect in the failed bombings who is currently held in Italy awaiting what now passes for extradition between EU member states.”

    The latest reports are that Osman Hussain, aka Hamdi Isaac, was arrested on Friday, 29 July 2005 in Rome; the European Arrest Warrant legislation had been introduced in Italy the previous day. The relevant details of this new warrant are available from the EU website and the Home Office Website. My understanding is that the Italian authorities can hold this suspect for up to 90 days prior to handing him over, although the suspect can be extradited in 10 days if extradition is not contested. A complicating factor to the extradition may be the death of an Italian national in the 7 July 2005 bombings which could allow the Italian authorities to bring charges if Osman Hussain was involved.

  4. Brian

    The police point out that it can take much longer than 14 days to scrutinise the entire contents of a computer hard disk where the evidence to support a charge may well be concealed behind passwords and attempted deletions. Other investigations may similarly be necessarily quite protracted. In the special circumstances of terrorism, there are obviously cogent arguments against allowing a suspect to remain at liberty while this kind of supporting evidence is ferreted out and analysed.

    It’s not just the time taken to rummage through the hard disk that’s the problem. The police in Operation “Ore” had just as difficult a problem in recovering evidence from often encrypted hard disk drives. But in most cases, the suspects were granted bail until the work was complete. Admitting most terrorists to bail for often lengthy periods may not be appropriate in most cases. The court does however have power to compel the suspect to wear an electronic tag as part of the conditions imposed.
    My concern, and it comes from many years experience, is that if you give the prosecution three months to complete a task, you can bet your bottom dollar the work will expand the fill that time. And I’m afraid some judges when they hear the words “intelligence” or “terrorism” will be reluctant to challenge the prosecution evidence, if such evidence could be presented to the court in the first place.
    Three months seems to be an awfully long time for a suspect, who may turn out to be innocent, to be incarcerated and who, in the absence of bad faith or dishonesty on the part of the police, will not be compensated for any loss he suffers
    Cheers
    t

  5. Phil Edwards says:

    I have not read or heard anything so far that points unmistakably to the police having acted in this case irresponsibly or without due consideration of the consequences of the rival courses of action open to them.

    Not unmistakably, perhaps, but I think the evidence (such as it is) supports some very alarming conjectures. If the police were acting responsibly, they’ve got a lot of explaining to do. (More here.)

  6. Patrick says:

    Brian:
    I see your son has worked his magic yet again to excellent effect.

    An investigation by the IPCC is undoubtedly the correct mechanism to establish the circumstances and assess the police officers’ actions. In our society one is presumed innocent until proven guilty and, while certainly applying to Jean Charles de Menezes, this also applies to any police officers involved.

    The nature of suicide bombers is qualitatively different from the terrorism the mainland British public grew used to during the Provisional IRA campaign on the Mainland. We are not faced with threats primarily to economic targets, with phoned warnings, but attempts directly aimed at human life. For an illustration one only needs to watch the CCTV footage from Atocha station in Spain, as broadcast on BBC 2 last night, and let’s not forget 11 September 2001.

    To attempt to apprehend a potential suicide bomber must take great courage as the officers face the potential of the bombers being prepared to self-destruct, as demonstrated by the Madrid terrorists; one Spanish police officer was killed entering the flat as those terrorists detonated their explosives. I acknowledge the police officers involved in the surveillance and tackling of Jean Charles de Menezes undoubtedly had such concerns for their own welfare as well as the welfare of the public in mind. I would not want their job.

    The wider issue must be what we, as a society, will tolerate to defeat such terrorists? Undoubtedly new techniques to deal with such terrorists have to be learned with guidance from law enforcement agencies who deal with such threats, such as the Israelis. Also we, the public, must accept the rules of engagement our police forces devise and use, that means we must be told and agree to them.

  1. 31 July, 2005

    […] Posted as a comment on BLB’s Ephems in response to Shoot to Kill and Other Remedies […]

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