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"?
(Back in the Tooting front line)