Monday, July 25, 2005

The killing of Jean Charles de Menezes

Although I understand the pressures that security officials are under in trying to catch suspected terrorists, I find it hard to support that killing innocent people is acceptable "just in case." In some ways, the argument is no different than the one to torture prisoners for information that may lead to information about other terrorist activities. I thought about Jean Charles today as I took the subway today carrying my bulky gym bag...I honestly was nervous. Will people think I'm a suspect? Will a security official stop to search me? BBC Online had a great article on this where minorities in London weigh in how they feel & have been treated on the Tube. I'm not saying it's easy, but as democracies that value human rights, actions such as these are simply unacceptable in my opinion.

From Electronic Iraq:

Since news broke that London police cornered a young man on the floor of an Underground train, and, in full view of other passengers, pumped five bullets into his head as he lay on the ground, I have been following the reports with increasing anger and sadness. The four bomb attacks on London on July 7 caused enormous carnage and fear. The attempted follow-up attacks the day before the subway shooting only added to the tension.

In this context, reactions to the killing were muted even after it became known that the dead man was a 27-year-old Brazilian immigrant named Jean Charles de Menezes totally unconnected with any terrorist plot. This caution then seems understandable, and that is prescisely the problem. The fact is that in Western societies, collective guilt for brown people is second-nature. We hardly notice it. There are always plenty of people ready to justify, to understand the "difficult" position of the police. But I just can't believe that all things being equal, de Menezes would be dead if he had blond hair and blue eyes. Perhaps if he had emerged from his house looking like David Beckham, one of the officers would have said, "hang on, are we sure we are watching the right house?" Someone might have asked one additional question that would have stopped the chain of events that ended with five bullets in a young man's head.

As soon as de Menezes' identity had been revealed, various British officials expressed sorrow and regret. But within hours the main theme turned to self-justification and rationalization. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, expressed "regret," but said that such a shooting could happen again.

The director of the human rights group Liberty called for a "comprehensive" investigation into the killing, but even she urged the public to remember that police had to "make split second decisions" with "life-long consequences." Jack Straw, the UK Foreign Secretary, said on BBC Radio: "It is obviously deeply regrettable but what we have to appreciate is the very intense pressure under which the police officers have to work." Straw added, "We have to ensure that clear rules are operated but we also, tragically, have to ensure that the police do have effective discretion to deal with what could be terrorist suicide outrages about to take place. That's the dilemma."

The director of the human rights group Liberty called for a "comprehensive" investigation into the killing, but even she urged the public to remember that police had to "make split second decisions" with "life-long consequences." Jack Straw, the UK Foreign Secretary, said on BBC Radio: "It is obviously deeply regrettable but what we have to appreciate is the very intense pressure under which the police officers have to work." Straw added, "We have to ensure that clear rules are operated but we also, tragically, have to ensure that the police do have effective discretion to deal with what could be terrorist suicide outrages about to take place. That's the dilemma."

The prevailing "split-second decision" thesis, which has dominated UK press reaction, might be more reasonable if the police had received serious, credible information that de Menezes was a suicide bomber a short time before and really believed they were in hot pursuit of him on his way to carry out an attack. But the claim that the police officers only had a split second to act is contradicted by what is already known. The Observer reported on 24 July that de Menezes' "address in Tulse Hill was identified from materials found inside the bombers' unexploded rucksacks on Thursday and was immediately put under surveillance. When Menezes, dressed in baseball cap, blue fleece and baggy trousers, emerged from it at around 10am on Friday, he was followed. When he headed for the nearby tube station, officers decided to arrest him. An armed unit took over, ordering him to stop. He did not. His unseasonally thick jacket apparently prompted concern that he had explosives strapped beneath."

What is already known, therefore, is that almost 24 hours before they saw de Menezes emerge from his house, police had put it under surveillance based on information they found at the scene of one of the attempted bombings at lunchtime the day before. If the overriding goal of the police is to prevent further attacks, why did they not raid the house right away? They might have discovered sooner what they found out too late -- that de Menezes was totally uninvolved in any terrorist plot. The police clearly had more than a "split-second" to act and they need to explain why they did not act.

Yet, something made the police suspicious between the time de Menezes left his home on Friday morning and the time he ran from an armed squad drawing their guns on him. What was it? Surely de Menezes can't have been the only Londoner to leave his house on Friday morning heading for a Tube stop. We are told that it was his fleece jacket that was "unseasonably thick." Here in Chicago, a thick jacket in July would almost surely be unseasonable, although I often take one out at this time of year because I find the airconditioning in most buildings excessive. But in London? I have frozen through many northern European summers in my life, but perhaps the weather has been hot lately. So far as we have been told, all previous bomb attempts in London, like those in Madrid, were carried out with rucksacks, not suicide belts. Did the police have any reason other than de Menezes' appearance that morning to suspect a change in tactics? Had they searched his house when they had the chance, they might have satisfied themselves that he owned a fleece, but no explosives, without needing to kill him.

There is one crucial fact that has been stunningly absent from all the analysis. De Menezes was a brown man. He could have passed for an Arab or perhaps a Pakistani. To those who pursued and killed him, he must have looked the part of a suicide terrorist. After all, it doesn't appear the police knew anything else about him, even though they had almost 24 hours to find out.

In the United States we have many examples of the police making "split-second decisions" to protect the public. There was Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times by four New York City police officers in 1999, while standing at the door of his house. The officers, who were acquitted of any wrongdoing in Diallo's killing, claimed they thought he had pulled out a gun. Amadou had in fact pulled out a wallet. LaTanya Haggerty, a 26-year old Chicago woman, was shot dead during a routine traffic stop the same year because the officer who killed her said she saw her grabbing a gun. What the officer -- who was also black -- thought was a gun, was a cell phone. Chicago has a long, sad history of such "split-second decisions" and what they all seem to have in common is that the victim was not white. Somehow a wallet, a cell phone or a bunch of keys looks more like a gun in the hands of a black person, and a thick jacket looks more like a suicide belt on a brown man.

The police, in any country at any time, whatever strain they must be under, cannot simply be given a blank check. In London, this is the same police force that was famously called "institutionally racist" by the Macpherson Inquiry carried out after the force's incompetence and negligence meant that the perpetrators of the racially-motivated murder of black British teenager Stephen Lawrence got off scot-free. The 1999 report which found widespread racism at every level of the police, was seen as a turning point in inter-ethnic relations in Britain. While acknowledging some progress, one of the inquiry's advisors, Dr. Richard Stone said in 2004, "In some areas things have got a lot worse, random stops of young black men are now twice as likely as they were five years ago. Today a black man is eight times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, this is definitely not progress." This is the same police force that shot Jean Charles de Menezes.

As the authorities fighting the "war on terror" claim more and more leeway, Muslim communities feel greater pressure. It is now de rigeur to demand that Muslims living in the west "do more" to root out extremism. Yes, we must all do our part. But it is not clear to me why a British Muslim, who works as a nurse, a bus driver or an accountant, has a greater responsibility or ability to fight Muslim extremists than an ordinary white British youth has to fight the rising tide of racism from groups like the British National Party. The responsibility ought to be the same, and yet it isn't. Muslims are increasingly held collectively responsible for whatever any other Muslim says or does, while members of the dominant society are always allowed their individuality and autonomy. White youths who get involved in anti-racism campaigns are sometimes lauded, but the vast majority who don't are certainly not condemned.

On June 28, an Israeli soldier was convicted in the killing of Tom Hurndall, an unarmed 23-year-old British peace activist, shot while he was assisting Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip in April 2003. Hurndall's death was only a rare example of hundreds of such killings by the Israeli army to lead to a trial and conviction. Initially, Israel lied that Hurndall had been armed. "It took months and months and a lot of pushing by the Hurndall family and the British military attaché before [the investigation] got going," said Jessica Montell director of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. The problem is that Israel is a country where the tactics of the army are widely justified and rationalized as being the necessary actions of hard-pressed soldiers loyally protecting the country against ruthless terrorists. And the army is allowed to investigate itself. When the victim of these actions is a young westerner like Tom Hurndall, rather than a faceless, nameless Arab, the balloon of impunity can be briefly punctured.

Over the weekend, the Brazlian foreign minister Celso Amorim arrived in London to add his government's full weight to the demands for an independent investigation of de Menezes' killing. It remains to be seen whether the British government will demonstrate the same accountability they demanded of Israel, or whether the attitude that a state defending its citizens against terrorism is entitled do anything it wants with impunity has already sunk in too deeply.

Ali Abunimah is a co-founder of Electronic Iraq.