The Brazilian Whacks

This week’s _Wormseye_ (below the fold) an angry reaction from at least one reader, Allan Hodgson. I’ve moved it out of comments in a Voltairean spirit.

bq. I could not disagree more with Andrew Brown’s comments in a Worm’s Eye View on the unfortunate death of Mr. deMenezes. We are extremely fortunate to have a police commissioner of the stature of Sir Ian Blair. Under the circumstances it was imperative to keep the lid on things and to prevent mass hysteria.Mistakes do happen under such circumstances and the unfortunate shooting of one man is not a high price to pay. I fervently pray Sir Ian is not forced to resign, and I wish the media would find something more meritous to concern themselves with.

Here’s what I wrote. As it happens, I don’t really know whether Sir Ian Blair should resign. To some extent he’s being made a scapegoat for things that everyone believed or wanted to believe. I’m much more worried about the firearms squad believing they have a right to shoot anyone they really want to.

bq.. In November 2001 I spent a week watching evening television in hotel rooms around America, just after the phrase “war on terror” had come into general use. Some of what I saw was excellent. I will never forget a scene from a documentary about the Afghan war, showing a young Russian conscript crawling from the ruins of his armoured car before a mujahid stood over him and blew his brains out. The expression on the crawling boy’s face taught me something about war that no other medium could have done. In those days, of course, the mujahideen were freedom fighters.

But the “war on terror” was for the most part used just as a kind of advertising banner to brand films of powerful aircraft taking off to bomb mountain ranges half way round the world. When it appeared as “America’s war on terror” it was even more similar to the banners all around me selling Americans America’s something or other.

Of course, the “war on terror” never made sense – how do you end such a thing? “When all the terrorists are eliminated”, as Dick Cheney told a European journalist once? But that’s not to say the phrase wasn’t effective or important. It expressed anger; it made thought difficult and it obscured still more of the real world.

Now it has crossed to this country, and is being used in comments on the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician shot dead on a tube train in south London by plainclothes police. At first, we were told that he was a suicide bomber; then that he had behaved like one – wearing a padded jacket, running when challenged. Leaks from the enquiry last week suggest that he was dressed in a light denim jacket, and reached the train quite normally, paying for his ride and picking up a free paper, before being grabbed when he reached it by one policeman, who held him immobilised while a colleague shot him seven times in the head at close range.

One of the most interesting things about these false stories is that many of them seem to have come from a civilian eyewitness to the killing who simply cannot have seen what he was sure he saw. The point is that he knew, like everyone else in London, that there were men roaming around the city willing to let off bombs in the tube, and he desperately wanted them killed in their turn. So that’s what he saw.

Journalists are held to different standards of objectivity. They have to wrap their opinions in rhetoric, and in the “war on terror”, everything is possible. Here is a front page lead from the Daily Express: “Police who shot dead an innocent man in the war against terror should not face murder charges, their fellow officers said last night.”

Serving police officers always take the view that their colleagues should never face charges for any excess of zeal. That is precisely why the rest of us have an interest in a policy of zero tolerance for police wrongdoing. It is unarguably true that innocent civilians are killed in war. It should also be axiomatic that if the police kill innocent civilians, the word, and the charge, for what they have done is “murder”.

The Sun columnist Richard Littlejohn devoted an entire column to defending “the poor bloody infantry”, as he called the police. The phrase has a fine martial ring – except that even the British army is not allowed to shoot innocent unarmed men on tube trains. Besides, the infantry are called poor and bloody because it’s their job to be shot at, even more than to shoot back. This just isn’t true of the police. The civilian police may risk their lives, but only by way of exception. It’s not what they join up for.

In a real war, the infantry know very well what may happen to them. I suppose the one consolation for the parents of Jean Charles de Menezes is that he can have had no idea at all that he was about to be killed before a complete stranger grabbed his arms and another shot him seven times in the head. He didn’t know he was in the middle of a war. We shouldn’t insult his memory by pretending that he was.

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