It must never happen again

Liz DaviesIt must never happen again

By Liz Davies

Morning Star, 25 July 2005

London is a frightening place to live right now. We Londoners are being shown a small glimpse of what it must be like to live in Baghdad. We are in danger – from terrorist bombs and trigger-happy police.

On Friday, the police acted as judge, jury and executioner. Jean Charles de Menezes is a victim of the war on terror in London, just as those who died on 7 July are victims. He was killed for three simple reasons: he wasn’t white, he was wearing a bulky coat and he ran away from the police. Who knows why he ran, but for no reason that could justify summary execution.

The rush by leading London and national politicians, and by most sections of the media, to support the police action was breath taking. In a democratic society, the first response when a member of the public is killed by the police should be to suspend the officers involved and to announce an independent inquiry.

There are circumstances, obviously, when an inquiry might conclude that the only thing that the police could have done, to protect the public or themselves, was to kill. But the gravity of that conclusion is such that it should only be reached after independent scrutiny of all the circumstances, not as a knee-jerk reaction on the day. Instead, politician after politician queued up to explain that shoot-to-kill is now necessary.

Now that we know that Menezes had nothing to do with terrorism, and there is to be an inquiry, Sir Ian Blair expresses his regret at the tragedy but adds, almost casually, that it might happen again. The inquiry must examine not only the actions of the police at the scene, but the instructions from the top and the whole “shoot-to-kill” policy. It must never happen again.

Where have we seen the state operate “shoot-to-kill” before? Apartheid South Africa, present-day Palestine, Los Angeles, and, of course, Northern Ireland.

New Labour’s assault on civil liberties, ratcheted up several notches post-9/11, reproduces the infamous policing techniques used in Northern Ireland. Extraordinarily, New Labour chooses those methods from Northern Ireland which were not only abuses of civil liberties but were also profoundly ineffective. Internment in 1970s Northern Ireland, described as the IRA’s best recruiting tool, has been followed by 21st-century detention in Belmarsh. Muslim communities are treated by the police and racists as suspect communities, with thousands of young non-white men subject to stop and search, and racist attacks escalating, just as the Irish community was in the 1970s and 1980s. Now we see the police operating shoot-to-kill and doing so under pressure, after 21 July, to get results. The pressure to get results produced the Guildford Four, Birmingham Six, Annie Maguire and her family, and Judith Ward – all appalling miscarriages of justice, but at least not executions.

This war on terror has become a by-word for failures of intelligence. A failure of intelligence led to Jean Charles de Menezes’ death. A failure of intelligence, and our politicians doctoring the intelligence that was available, led to the announcement that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, to an illegal invasion and continuing illegal occupation, and to the deaths of thousands of innocents – civilians and soldiers. Those failures of intelligence have created the climate for terrorism to escalate.

We must end the view that civil liberties are negotiable. America and Britain have encouraged, and practised, torture, despite the absolute prohibition on torture in international law that both countries have signed up to. Both countries will use evidence extracted by torture elsewhere. Both have practised torture on detainees in Iraq, in Bagram, and in Guantanamo Bay, alternatively denied and justified as preventing further acts of terorrism. But, of course, what someone says under torture is not reliable, it’s aimed at what the victim believes the torturer wants to hear. Mass murders have not been prevented. Torture didn’t identify the bombers in Madrid, Istanbul, London, Egypt. Now summary execution is acceptable if, apparently, it is used to forestall mass murder. But, just like torture, the chances of summary execution actually preventing mass murder are remote. The chances, however, of the police getting it wrong and killing innocent people are high. A democratic state has a duty to maintain non-negotiable standards; otherwise we slip further and further into arbitrary state power.

Friday’s shooting will make it harder for the police to find and prosecute those involved in 7 and 21 July, or anyone planning similar criminal acts. Just as the Irish community was suspicious of the police, so anyone who might be mistaken for a Muslim (logically any of us given that it is a religion, but in practice those who are not white) will think twice before giving information to the police. Suppose they detain me as a terrorist suspect? Suppose they shoot me if they raid my next-door neighbour’s house?

After 7 July, Charles Clarke announced further anti-terrorism offences. With the exception of the thought-crime proposal to criminalise anyone “glorifying” acts of terrorism, these offences are as yet unspecified and will be put before Parliament in the autumn, along with the government’s earlier proposals to introduce ID cards. It’s hard to imagine that Labour MPs will now have the guts to vote down ID cards; but the arguments remain the same post-7 July. ID cards wouldn’t have prevented the tragedies of 7 July. As for the creation of further anti-terrorist offences, there are plenty of criminal offences available – murder, conspiracy to commit murder, the carrying of explosives. The police don’t lack offences with which to charge potential suicide bombers; their problem lies in detecting them. The reality of more anti-terrorism offences is that the police will have more tools, and more opportunity, to harass anyone they choose and grievances will escalate.

Above all, political solutions are required to end the war on terror. Blair’s denial that the London bombs had any connection with the occupation of Iraq is as unrealistic, and self-justifying, as an alcoholic denying that he has a problem. Ending the occupation of Iraq and achieving justice for the Palestinians are necessary to bring about a better world, and would have the useful by-product of eliminating some of the sense of grievance that causes a very few to resort to violence. Until those happen, we will all remain less safe – from terrorism and from the state.