Monday, July 25, 2005

Don't Run ... You Might Look Like a Terrorist

It now turns out that the man who was shot to death at pointblank range on a London underground train a couple of days ago, on suspicion of being a suicide bomber was a Brazilian electrician who was late for work, and was certainly not wired or carrying anything, was followed for several miles on a bus and street by several un-uniformed, armed plainsclothes policemen, who never (as far as I can figure out from the news reports) identified themselves as police. He panicked (it seems that his visa had expired and he was worried that he might be in some sort of trouble over that), ran into a tube station, was followed onto a tube train (note that all this time, the plainsclothes policemen are only several feet behind him and could reasonably have stopped and apprehended him), tripped and fell (an eyewitness, a certain Mr Whitby who was sitting on the train he was on, described him as looking like a cornered fox) and was shot at pointblank range, not once, not twice, but seven times to the head and once to the shoulder. He died. As the same Mr Whitby put it " He was shot five times, man. he's dead"

A tragedy, says the Metropolitan Police, with the subtext, stated and unstated, being that mistakes happen. If you were to read the comments on the BBC website as evidence of the general drift of public opinion, it seems that a majority of people in Britain think that because he was stupid enough to run when he saw the police, or because he was wearing an 'unseasonably heavy coat', he pretty much asked for it.

This is the most absurd piece of reasoning I have ever heard. For one thing, the man did not know the men following him were policemen. The were ununiformed. To him, they looked like there were some random, probably large and menacing-looking, men chasing him. Perhaps he had reason to believe someone was after him for reasons totally unrelated to terrorism. Maybe he was a petty criminal. Maybe he hadn't paid his rent, and thought the landlord had sent his goons after him. Okay, that's a bit farfetched, but what is so strange about a man running when three or four men are chasing him? It's not clear that they had necessarily drawn their guns, which makes it even more likely he'd run. Is that not the normal reaction when you feel you're being followed? To get away from them into somewhere safer? Like a subway station?

Secondly, some people seem to think that by wearing 'an unseasonably heavy jacket' the man was bound to arouse suspicion. It turns out, however, that for starters he was not wearing a heavy jacket. A report I read, in the Washington Times, reported speaking to the owner of a cafe where he was a regular, who said that he knew the jacket the guy would have been wearing - it was a denim jacket he wore every day. Secondly, even if he had been wearing a heavy jacket, that is not a crime, and certainly not something for which one can be shot. Some people feel colder at a given temperature than others. It may strike the people who write in to the BBC as odd, but not everyone possesses enough jackets to cater to every variation in temperature. Maybe the guy had only one jacket, and while it was heavy, he wore it because he didn't have a lighter one and felt that no jacket was worse than slightly heavy jacket. Bad mistake, as it turned out.

Thirdly, the initial reports suggested he 'looked Pakistani', as if that were some sort of justification for shooting him. In the present circumstances, it might be an added reason for suspicion, but is every suspect to be shot dead without any attempts to establish his guilt? Now that we know who he was, we can see that he was not even remotely South-Asian looking. Brazilians are a pretty racially mixed population, so it's not unfeasible that some of them could pass for South Asian (I've often thought someone who turned out to be Latino was South Asian, and vice versa)but this guy was a particularly white specimen of Brazilianhood. Also, initial reports said he 'had wires protruding out of his jacket'. It turns out this was not the case. What I'm trying to point out is that people often see what they're expecting to see ("Pakistani-looking", "wired") and in a panicked state, what we remember seeing might have little or no resemblance to reality. So relying on people's impressions on issues like these at times like this is a really, really bad idea.

Given that it seems inevitable that people (and the police are only human, so this includes them) are bound to make mistakes, is it not important to train those who have the ability to turn suspicion into an immediate death sentence in such a way as to minimize the possiblity of such mistakes? Yet the Metropolitan Police Chief is defending his officers being told to shoot to kill without any attempt whatsoever to suggest that they are being trained to be cognizant of the possiblity of such mistakes occuring. If you give people the license to kill on suspicion, you're pretty much ensuring more Menezeses are going to die for no fault of theirs.

Why, if such a policy is in place, were people not told about it? If I run the chance of being shot dead for running away from a random bunch of men chasing me, why have I not been warned about this? What's the solution, anwyay - to walk up to people chasing you, assuming they must be undercover policemen? What if they really turn out to be thugs out to get me? A simpler solution would be for the policemen to have been uniformed - then there would have been no reason to run. Why were plainclothes policemen put on this job, and allowed to shoot on suspicion? Why was the public not warned?

And finally, for everyone who who thinks they would not have run in menezes' situation, don't be so goddamn sure. I'd like to see you faced with what he faced, and decide to confront your chasers. Whatever your views on the difficulty of the police's task at this point, it makes absolutely no sense to blame the victim. And clearly, there has been a severe lapse of judgement, not only on the part of the guy who actyually fired the shots, but of everyone involved in formulating the policy that allowed him to do what he did. Expressing 'regret' without owning up to the enormity of the mistake isn't going to help.


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