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July 26, 2005
Steyn: Don't Excuse London Police

Mark Steyn takes the London police to task in a surprising Telegraph column this morning for the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician who got shot eight times after running from plainclothes police in the London subway system. After watching various people -- such as myself -- come to the defense of London's special operations police, Steyn argues that we should not let them off the hook so easily:

[W]e turn to Jean Charles de Menezes, the supposed "suicide bomber" who turned out to be a Brazilian electrician on his way to work. Unfortunately, by the time the Metropolitan Police figured that out, they'd put five bullets in his head. We're told we shouldn't second-guess split-second decisions that have to be made under great stress by those on the scene, which would be a more persuasive argument if the British constabulary didn't spend so much time doing exactly that to homeowners who make the mistake of defending themselves against violent criminals. And, if summary extrajudicial execution was so urgent, why did the surveillance team let him take a bus ride before eventually cornering him in the Tube? ...

We at this newspaper are currently defending British soldiers facing prosecution for situations broadly analogous to those in which the Met found themselves. But there's still a difference. Anyone who rubs up against the military in Iraq knows what to expect: attempt to crash a roadblock and don't be surprised if they open fire. But few of us had an inkling of the Met's new "shoot to kill" policy until they shot and killed Mr de Menezes. And although I've had a ton of e-mails pointing out various sinister aspects of his behaviour - he was wearing a heavy coat! he refused to stop! - it seems to me there are an awful lot of people on the Tube who might easily find themselves in Mr de Menezes's position.

Steyn points out that Britain never openly declared the shoot-to-kill policy, and even if it had it would likely have gone unnoticed by the numerous foreign travelers using the Tube. He also opposes the notion of plainclothes officers shouting orders to stop while waving weapons around and expecting a rational reaction from a suspect, even one who has nothing to hide. Steyn likens them to a gang, although I somehow doubt that the officers wore baggy jeans and sports caps with the bills sticking out sideways. I would think that the "gang" identified themselves as police while yelling at Menezes to stop, but I don't know that to be the case.

Steyn then takes the other tube riders to task for not doing more to stop the bombers on their own, not a terribly consistent argument while criticizing the London constabulary for overreaction:

If the defence of what happened to Mr de Menezes is that it was the right treatment but the wrong patient and we'd better get used to it, perhaps the British Tourist Board could post signs at Terminal Four: "BIENVENUE A LONDRES! WE SHOOT TO KILL!" On the other hand, the day before the Met inaugurated its new policy, three suicide bombers managed to escape through Tube stations full of people. At Mr de Menezes's station, Stockwell, according to passenger James Boampong, "an olive-skinned man" mumbled a final prayer and then attempted to self-detonate on the Northern line. It was, fortunately, a damp squib. But he left his smoking backpack on the floor and fled at the Oval, up the down escalator and out to the street. Three passengers and the flower seller outside the station attempted to stop him but failed. Where was everyone else? Were they, like Tube drivers on the Bakerloo later that morning, downing tools and withholding their labour?

"Defiance" has to be more than just the latest disposable clich of the headline writers. It would have been better had the "olive-skinned man" been caught and Mr de Menezes had been allowed to go to his electrical job. To do that you need not killer cops but an alert citizenry that understands, when you're on a train underground and something funny starts, there's unlikely to be any elite marksmen down there to take care of it. It's up to you.

I understand where Steyn wants to take the readers, but it doesn't add up. Most of the people in the tube didn't have any idea who did what on July 21st. All they saw was smoke, a bunch of people yelling to get out, and people running. Those closest to the attempt would have seen little but the smoke and would understandably be trying to save their own lives by running away from it. Steyn wants to know why the rest of the people didn't stop the would-be bombers, who were doing much the same thing as everyone around them. Suddenly, even though he castigates the police for making an assumption about Menezes based on faulty intelligence and superficial characteristics, he wants Londoners to do the exact same thing, en masse.

He does make a good point in his conclusion, in that a law-enforcement approach to terrorism forces police into these no-win choices which inevitably take much more of a toll on the civilian populace than the terrorists. I think that he also offers some truth in his criticism of the police in the Menezes shooting. After all, they turned out to be wrong about Menezes, and they did allow him onto a bus without attempting to stop him, which seems inconsistent with their claims of belief of imminent danger in the Tube.

However, with London under attack and the stakes remaining as high for stopping each potential bomber, I still think their actions are not only understandable but probably necessary under similar circumstances. If we have to criticize the London police for selecting a suspect based on rational but mistaken observation, the alternative Steyn suggests -- a mob of people attacking suspicious-looking people before anything untoward happens -- would result in chaos.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at July 26, 2005 5:51 AM

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» Why The Brazilian Was Shot? from Brainster's Blog
This story contains a clue: "Three of the men we wish to trace all entered Stockwell underground station just before 12.25pm, last Thursday, 21st July 2005." Of course, Stockwell station is where the Brazilian was gunned down the following day.... [Read More]

Tracked on July 26, 2005 9:59 AM

» What Not To Do When Challenged By Police from Thirty Second Thoughts
Predictably, some are outraged by what they see as an overreaction by the Metropolitan Police who, in their view, illegally gunned down an innocent man. My response: after two terrorist attacks in as many weeks that resulted in the deaths of scores o... [Read More]

Tracked on July 26, 2005 1:18 PM

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