This morning in sub-zero temperature, a permanent memorial for Jean Charles de Menezes was unveiled to a small crowd. Mis-identified as a terrorist suspect, he was killed by London police officers on 22 July 2005 at Stockwell tube station. That’s the local stop for where I work and I went along to the ceremony.
Feelings, accountability and errors
There has been a temporary shrine at the station since very soon after the killing. It has survived all weathers, hasn’t been vandalised, and was kept stocked with fresh flowers. It both reflected and evoked strong feelings.
The campaign for accountability in the aftermath of the killing rightly stressed that others have also died at the hands of the British police and pressed the demand that nobody should be regarded as above the law. While the Metropolitan Police have apologised more than once for the killing, have paid an agreed sum of money to the family, and have emphasised that Jean Charles de Menezes was entirely innocent, it is hardly surprising that considerable strength of feeling and some bitterness still remain.
The police service was found guilty of not fulfilling its duty of care for Jean Charles de Menezes but the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that no individual officer would stand trial. I doubt there was any criminal intent but it is hard not to say it was criminal negligence. Two years ago the BBC put together an animated guide as a step-by-step account of what happened. Take a look.
Jean Charles de Menezes was an electrician on his way to do a job in north London. He took a bus to Brixton tube. Surveillance police officers were on that bus because one, who had not properly seen him, thought it might be worth following him when he left the block of flats where he lived, which they were keeping under observation. He got off the bus at Brixton tube station. The station was closed so he called a colleague and got back on the bus. The surveillance officers found this suspicious and did not see that the tube station was closed. He carried on by bus to Stockwell tube where, just after he boarded a train, he was killed.
Go over that one more time: the surveillance team did not notice that the tube station was closed.
There are numerous other more serious errors revealed in the BBC’s animated guide (link above) and in this Wikipedia summary. But somehow this is so basic, so obvious. Did they not look around? How is it possible to miss? Did they not see which way their quarry was looking as he got off the bus, see him stop and take stock? Had they not been trained properly?
Remember this was July 2005. On 7 July four bombs were detonated in London killing 56 people with many more seriously injured. Precisely two weeks later, 21 July, there was another set of four coordinated bomb attempts; these were foiled. One of them was on a train close to the Oval tube station, which is the next station to Stockwell on the Northern Line. I well remember the feeling that this was all coming very close to home.
On the 22nd came the news that a suspected terrorist had been shot and killed by police at Stockwell. For me, that was not just close to home but pretty much at home. And my and many other people’s reactions were ambivalent. It is surely never a good thing that the police have killed somebody but if that was the only way to stop a terrorist exploding a bomb that he was carrying, well, perhaps it had to be accepted. Like killing in war.
The logic of shooting to kill if a terrorist has a bomb attached to his or her body is hard to gainsay. Disabling a person might not be enough. I would have thought that if you could pin the person down and hold her/him immobile, that would suffice but I can imagine circumstances where that is not possible.
Normality – and not
But this whole argument, of course, is predicated on the notion that this is undeniably a terrorist holding a bomb and not, for example, a young man going about his daily life and work in an ordinary and unworried way.
It is predicated on the notion that police know how to do their job and see what’s going on around them the way we all normally do.
And that’s the thing – “the way we all normally do.”
There was nothing normal about that day or that time. To my recollection, people were not terrified but there was an articulated sense of risk – about riding the tube, getting on a bus, going into central London – in a way that there is not normally. The number of police who were around – at tube stations, for example – was not normal, not even for Stockwell where there are quite often extra police hovering because the area has a reputation for violence.
We expect the police to rise above the abnormality of such a time and maintain good judgement and normal commonsense – yet the police, both as an institution and as individuals, are vehicles of the very abnormality we want them to transcend. They are the ones with special instruction, extra duties, changed deployments, special firearms teams suddenly turning up in their patch.
The insidious nature of conflict
It was part of that abnormality that friends, colleagues and family all discussed the merits of a shoot-to-kill policy. None of us would normally do that – we wouldn’t have an opinion because we’re not experts and we wouldn’t want to have one because the subject is distasteful.
And so, on top of all the arguments about justice for all and nobody being above the law, I want to add one more argument, which is the one that really explains why I went and froze my toes this morning outside Stockwell tube.
When terrorists strike, or our government goes to war in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Falklands, or fought a counter-insurgency campaign in Northern Ireland, and also when an attempted atrocity is foiled such as on 21 July 2005 in London or the Christmas Day bomb on the Northwest flight to Detroit – when these things happen, their most insidious aspect is that they can get inside our heads, under our skin, poisoning our spirit. Even in our defiance of terror, we often let it seep in and then it may do quiet and long-term damage.
Once a few of the facts were out in the open, the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes reminded me of how that happens. As all the facts came out, the lesson was driven home. The permanent memorial should remind us all: don’t let the conflict get inside you, because there it will do untold damage to your judgement, your heart and your spirit. And out of that came, in July 2005, the death of a young man.
Instead, despite all distractions and temptations, maintain some blessed normality.