There was a remarkable moment in London last month when the Israeli Defence Force looked more restrained than the Metropolitan Police. Having shot an unarmed civilian in the head seven times (and once in the shoulder), the Metropolitan Police was suddenly obliged to explain to the public a policy that had been decided on in secret. The guidelines of Operation Kratos, designed in response to 9/11, said that suspected suicide bombers must be shot in the head. This was necessary, the police said, in order to stop hand movement. If an officer is reasonably certain he is faced with a suicide bomber, he must destroy the brain “instantly, utterly,” as former Met Police commissioner Lord Stevens explained to the News of the World tabloid.1 That weekend, the IDF — who helped train UK police in handling suicide bombers2 — managed to intercept a would-be suicide bomber and prevent him from detonating himself. No shots were fired; a man with an explosives belt strapped to him left the scene alive.3
Murder, Lies, and Videotape
The killing, after two separate terror attacks, marked the final termination of a giddy Live 8 atmosphere. In place of vapid music festivals came bag searches, police at every terminus, and an upsurge in racist attacks. On 22nd July, a day after a series of damp squibs failed to detonate across London’s tube system, the Evening Standard boards announced that a “bomber” was shot dead on London’s tube. A mass of contradictory eyewitness evidence emerged. One man said the man who had been shot had an “Asian appearance,” and another said that he was wearing a “bomb belt with wires coming out.” It was initially said that five shots were fired, although another passenger heard only three. Stories emerged that the man had been wearing an unusually bulky coat for the weather, while Met Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair explained that “as I understand the situation the man was challenged and refused to obey police instructions.” The man had been pursued into the tube as a train arrived, and several officers from SO19, a unit of plain-clothes armed officers, had piled on top of him. One with what appeared to be an automatic handgun unloaded several shots into him.4 The BBC explained that the police had done their best to resuscitate the man, but, like Humpty Dumpty, he would not be pieced back together again.
What we now know is that the man, named Jean Charles de Menezes was not a suicide bomber, he was Brazilian and not Asian, and the circumstances of his death were distorted by official and unofficial police briefings. For instance, in spite of what was initially claimed, it emerged that the man had been followed all the way from Tulse Hill in South London, where he had emerged from a three-storey block of flats on Scotia Road that was being watched by intelligence. They did not know which flat he had been in, or even which one they were supposed to be watching. He had boarded a bus to get to Stockwell and sat out the journey without managing to detonate himself.5 Police initially claimed that the man had been wearing a “bulky top” which could have concealed a bomb, and that they had intervened as he tried to approach Stockwell tube station. Yet, CCTV evidence examined by the Independent Police Complaints Commission confirmed that he had not been wearing a bulky top or coat, but a denim jacket which would not have been out of place on a day when the top temperature was 17C. They also claimed that he had fled, vaulted the ticket gates, and dashed down the escalator stairs. Again, the CCTV footage shows him using his travelcard to get through the ticket gates as normal. As the Sunday Times reports, all of these misleading details were fed to journalists in unofficial police briefings following the shooting.6 It was also claimed that they had identified themselves to the suspect and given him due warning. In fact, several witnesses say they did not identify themselves.7 That may be immaterial, however, for under the guidelines of Operation Kratos, armed police are not required to identify themselves if they believe they are pursuing a suicide bomber.8
Another curious detail. Following the shooting, a tube driver who was trying to flee along with passengers, had a gun pointed at his head by one of the officers.9 The profile of a suicide bomber must be especially capacious in the mind of a policeman if it can include a uniformed tube driver fleeing for his life. Alternatively, the officers were so psyched up that the merest provocation, real or imagined, could lead to one’s extinction. The fact that the officer fired eight shots into the victim is also suggestive of overkill. This may not be an isolated incident. Sir Ian Blair explained to Channel 4 news that there had been 250 other incidents involving armed officers, and seven in which police had got “as close to calling it ‘that'” as is possible without shooting.10 There is no indication that any of those who were close to “that” were in fact suicide bombers.
One of the most disgusting aspects of the story is how the information was allowed to come out. The police surely knew within minutes of searching his body for a suicide belt that he was not a “bomber.” If they had found ID on him, they knew who he was and therefore knew that they had killed an innocent man. Yet, they waited for a busy Saturday night, when attention to the news would be low, to admit that they had killed an innocent man. The excuses were ready. The man had been acting suspiciously, abnormally, and they had no choice. They had run toward a man whom they believed was a suicide bomber, when others would have run away. Their behaviour was heroic. London mayor Ken Livingstone was certain before any investigation had taken place that the police had acted to “protect the lives of the public.”11 Mr. Menezes’ cousin, Alex Pereira, was not so sure: “They just kill the first person they see, that’s what they did. They killed my cousin, they could kill anyone.”12
When it became clear that Mr. Menezes had not jumped the ticket barrier as alleged, had not behaved suspiciously, and had not been wearing “suspicious” clothing, the police allowed the Menezes family to explain this to the press alone, without corroborating them.13 Indeed, they never explained these facts themselves. Instead, they leaked photos of the July 7th bombings and of some recovered material from the July 21st damp squibs to ABC news.14 Then they sent a murder suspect on a paid holiday, courtesy of the Metropolitan police.15
The press were touchingly sympathetic to the officer concerned. The Independent columnist Bruce Anderson said that Mr. Menezes was “the author of his own misfortune.”16 The liberal Guardian, meanwhile, was more perturbed that the public had not been sufficiently prepared for extreme violence: “The biggest mistake was not to properly prepare the public for the sustained campaign of violence facing the country. Even when Mr. Menezes was thought to be a bomber, witnesses were shocked by the ferocity with which he was killed. More should have been done to prepare the public for the forceful response needed to protect them.”17 Meanwhile, there was much speculation about whether the shot man was an illegal immigrant.18
The shoot-to-kill policy, couched in what I would hope are tautologies (shoot-to-kill-to-stop, shoot-to-kill-where-necessary, shoot-to-kill-to-protect), has been defended as a grim necessity in a war against a brutal and unpredictable enemy. What would you do, if you had a suicide bomber, ready to detonate, in your sights? It would take extraordinary commitment to political correctness, it is averred, not to shoot. Yet the shoot-to-kill policy makes no sense. Rather like the “ticking clock” scenario used to justify torture, the justificatory clause involved here is unlikely ever to become reality. Yet, its absence has not prevented the use of torture or shoot-to-kill as yet. Indeed, this joins a raft of policies that have been both ineffective and disastrous for the innocent caught up by them.19
Further, as cryptologist Bruce Schneier writes20:
This policy is based on the extremely short-sighted assumption that a terrorist needs to push buttons to make a bomb explode. In fact, ever since World War I, the most common type of bomb carried by a person has been the hand grenade. It is entirely conceivable, especially when a shoot-to-kill policy is known to be in effect, that suicide bombers will use the same kind of dead-man’s trigger on their bombs: a detonate that is activated when a button is released, rather than when it is pushed.
The spurious notion that the only way to stop hand movement is to destroy the brain “instantly, utterly” is even less impressive when you recall that Mr. Menezes was already on the ground with several police officers piled on top of him when he was shot. It would surely have been sufficient to grab his hands, cuff them and take a quick look at what was under his jacket. Further, what grounds had the police for actually suspecting Mr. Menezes? That he emerged from a block of flats they were watching, and that he had olive skin. That he had walked into a tube, and passed through the gates in the normal fashion. And that, at some time, he began to run. Yet, as his family suggest, Mr. Menezes may well have been trying to catch the train as it arrived — indeed, a tube train had just pulled up to the platform as he arrived. Another perfectly excellent pragmatic reason for the victim to run was that he was being chased by several bulky white men in, variously, a suit, jeans, and a tracksuit, one of them waving a gun at him.
Under British law as it presently stands, a police officer has no special powers to injure or kill another person. The same law applies to them as it does to other citizens. What they are given, however, is considerable benefit of doubt: it is only necessary for them to demonstrate that they believed that the threat merited a fatal intervention. For this reason, it is unlikely that anyone will be prosecuted for Mr. Menezes’ death.21 Various figures, including the late Robin Cook MP, suggested that the procedures need to be reviewed in order to prevent such a tragedy from recurring. Former CIA agent Robert Baer suggests that the only way to stop suicide bombers is to gather intelligence, infiltrate their cells, “intercept them in the planning stage,” and prevent the bomber from getting anywhere near the designated target:
As Peri Golan, a major-general in Israel’s feared Shin Bet intelligence, told me: “By the time the suicider has his belt on and is approaching the target, it is already a terrible failure. I have smelt the bodies, the burnt bodies after an attack and it is an awful feeling because I know I have failed.”
There are means of protecting the public without giving officers a de facto license to kill on London’s transport system. Mildly
aberrant clothing and behaviour, even though it can’t be detected in this case, is too familiar in London for further tragedies not to occur while shoot-to-kill is the policy. The media have made much of the “marksman’s dilemma,” but the only way to be sure is not to pull the trigger.
2 Jimmy Burns, “Met Adopted Secret Shoot-to-Kill Policy in the Face of a New and Deadly Threat,” Financial Times, 25 July 2005.
14 Pierre Thomas, “Sources: July 7 London Bomb Plot May Have Been Much Larger,” World News Tonight, ABC News, 27 July 2005.
16 Bruce Anderson, “The Police Were Right to Shoot, Even If This Time They Got the Wrong Man,” The Independent, 25 July 2005.
18 “De Menezes Visa ‘Expired Two Years Ago,'” ITN, 28 July 2005; “Brazilian’s Visa Expired in 2003,” BBC, 28 July 2005; and Philip Johnston, “Brazilian Victim Was Here Legally, Insists Straw,” Telegraph, 26 July 2005.
Originally from Northern Ireland, Richard Seymour is a political activist who lives, works, studies, and writes in London. He maintains a weblog known as Lenin’s Tomb: <http://leninology.blogspot.com>. His earlier commentary on the London bombings and the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes was published in Doug Ireland’s “After the Bombings: Two Letters from London” (7 August 2005) at DIRELAND.