the discretion of the hangman

OK, first point. I don’t want to hear about the “split second decision” taken by the police last Friday. Once Jean Charles De Menezes decided to bolt from the cops he was dead. That’s why it’s called a shoot to kill policy. If a suspected suicide bomber runs, he dies – or she, should it come to that – in the same way that night follows day. Once a suspect is identified, no further decision making is necessary, though no doubt the cops on the ground will refer back up the chain via radio. This is an extra judicial execution and the people who do it have the same discretion as hangmen. Or, should it come to that, hangwomen.

So how was he identified? From what I can determine it was down to three factors:

He came out of the same block of flats linked to one of the 21/7 bombers
He looked non-white
He was wearing a coat on a warm day

In terms of the first, I have no idea whether he was registered at that address for bills, Council Tax etc. I also don’t know exactly when that address was linked to the Oval bomber. It could be reasonable to assume that the time frame was too tight for the cops to be able to acquire a list of residents and winnow potential suspects out from it. Until that time, everyone emerging from the house has to be accounted a potential suspect, given other factors.

Unfortunately, these are pretty weak. They seem to rest on the idea that anyone not white but not actually black or Chinese is Asian – and that anyone ‘Asian’ is Muslim. This is less likely to be true in London than in anywhere else in Britain, and possibly Europe as a whole. As a non-Afro Brazilian, Mr De Menezes’ heritage is likely to have been either Portuguese or Italian.

The cops also identified the fact that Mr De Menezes was wearing a coat on a warm day as a factor identifying him as a potential bomber. This is taken from the criteria adopted in Israel. Unlike Britain, Israel has very few migrants from hotter countries. “Unseasonable” means exactly the same for an Israeli or a Palestinian. Again, this is much less likely to be true in London and it’s not going to be helpful at all during the winter. And the unseasonable wearing of coats is only one of a list of identifying datapoints. Others include: distracted or ecstatic facial expression; a freshly shaven head; a suspect mumbling or talking to himself; agitated expression or movement. See here, also here.

How many of these other factors applied? Jean De Menezes was on his way to repair a fire alarm.

A marginal note. The news and talk shows yesterday had a rash of people trying to launch “shoot to kill to save” as a replacement term for “shoot to kill”. Forget it. That formulation doesn’t fit into headline language and it’s the kind of thing that newsreaders stumble over. It’s clumsy and it stinks of PR – of some sharp suited intellectual wide boy snapping his fingers and saying “got it! why dont we just say…” No arrests for last Thursday yet, but already we’ve got that well known characteristic of British public life – a bunch of tossers brainstorming around the urgent need to perfume a fuckup.

Bottom line. The De Menezes family accused the police of being “stupid and incompetent”. That about gets it, I think, but I suspect it goes further up the chain than that. Give the cops all the latitude you want, but the people here to protect us need to do better than this.

1 comment
  1. There was an excellent mini-comic that came with Issue 13 of McSweeney’s quarterly about a female suicide bombing recruit in Israel who decided not to go through with it, and was arrested and jailed anyway. The discussion between her and the policeman is very very interesting, and the format of a comic for the subject matter very unsettling. I’d recommend Joe Sacco for the same subject matter (palestinian bombers) in the same form. Very powerful medium comics.