For a few hours on the 22nd of July, Jean Charles de Menezes was a terrorist suspect. What he wasn’t was a capital-S Suspect; he wasn’t ‘known to the police’, as we used to say. (Or rather, he wasn’t the known person the police thought he was – apparently he was mistaken for Osman Hussain.) What if he had been?
Following last night’s appalling revelations, much attention has focused on the police’s apparent failure to verify that de Menezes was the Suspect they were after. What if they had done? What if it had been Osman Hussain who was shot?
I heard shouting which included the word ‘police’ and turned to face the male in the denim jacket. He immediately stood up and advanced towards me and the CO19 [firearms] officers … I grabbed the male in the denim jacket by wrapping both my arms around his torso, pinning his arms to his side. I then pushed him back onto the seat where he had been previously sitting … I then heard a gun shot very close to my left ear and was dragged away onto the floor of the carriage.
The male in the denim jacket was (self-evidently) not about to detonate any explosives: officers had no reason to suppose that their lives, or the lives of the tube passengers, were in danger. (As I wrote back here,“was de Menezes, in his denim jacket, seen as a low enough risk to be watched on the bus rather than being intercepted, and rugby-tackled on the tube train rather than being shot from a distance?”) He could, when he approached the firearms officers, have been intending to go for a knife or a gun – but pinning his arms to his sides and pushing him back into his seat handily dealt with that possibility.
So it’s hard to see any legal – or rational – justification for the shooting; and this would still be the case if they’d got the right bloke. To quote myself at greater length,
was de Menezes, in his denim jacket, seen as a low enough risk to be watched on the bus rather than being intercepted, and rugby-tackled on the tube train rather than being shot from a distance? But if so, why was he killed? Not, surely, because he had been misidentified as one of the July 21st bombers – this would be summary justice pure and simple.
What I wonder about, after last night’s news stories, is: what if it had been Osman Hussain wearing that denim jacket and forced back into that seat on the tube train – what would be the mood of the country now? Would a leak from the Police Complaints Commission have been front page news? Would we be hearing calls for multiple resignations? Or would an act of summary justice – an extra-judicial execution in broad daylight, a truly appalling precedent – have been accepted? Would we now be being encouraged to hail the Metropolitan Police for its resolute stance against terror and its willingness to take the fight to the enemy? (They might cut a few corners here and there, but what’s the odd dead terrorist to you or to me?)
The charge that Ian Blair, like his namesake, is a liar has gained some traction lately. The possibility I’m considering here is that he’s a gambler: that he saw the July 21st bombings – and the Stockwell operation – as a chance to massively extend the effective power of the Metropolitan Police, and to do so without endangering its support in the political class and the media. I don’t know if the gamble would have paid off; I’m glad we never found out.