Monday, July 25, 2005

Brazilian Killed in Fearful Folly

Last Friday, in a tragic turn of events, Jean Charles de Menezes, a twenty-seven-year old electrician from Brazil was tackled by British anti-terrorism police and shot 8 times in the head at point blank range. Noticeably absent in the media coverage of critics of the tragedy is the phrase “could have been averted”. I imagine that is because it is unlikely that it could have.

From the view point of the police, they did everything right and everything that I hope any police officer would do when faced with a similar situation. They came across a man on a mid-summer day appearing to be of South Asian or Middle Eastern descent wearing a heavy jacket and carrying a backpack. According to news reports, the man started acting suspicious and as he entered a subway station was ordered by officers to stop. Instead of heeding the officers’ orders, he took off and lunged for a nearby subway car, where he was tackled and fatally shot.

Now, if those accounts hold true and I found myself as a police officer in that kind of situation, I honestly believe that I would have acted in the same manner. The only thing I probably would have done differently is, once it was all over, I would have jubilantly moonwalked my way to the nearest restroom to change my underwear and blow chunks all over myself at the realization that I was a split second away from being vaporized in a fiery explosion that would have wasted a few dozen innocent bystanders as well.

On the flip-side though, if I was a Brazilian electrician, I probably would have made sure that I had a good jacket on before I went to work. As a native of the tropics in a land that rarely sees the sweet side of seventy degrees, English summers are probably about as comfortable to Brazilians as Scandinavian winters are to Americans. As an electrician, I would probably be carrying my tools around in a backpack as well. I would probably also be a bit unnerved if I discovered on my way to work that I was being trailed by an athletic-looking group of men bearing stoically stern expressions of single-minded seriousness focused upon my every action. As I tried to figure out what those people were up to, I would not be the least bit surprised if my actions appeared suspicious or unnatural. If they were gaining on me and yelled at me to stop even though they were not wearing uniforms, I could see myself mistaking them for dot-busting ruffians eager to make some brown-skinned person pay for the recent deluge of terrorist activity. I’d make a break for it and head for the relative safety of a subway car where there were lots of witnesses to discourage a brutal beating and potential rescuers if those pursuing me were not deterred. I would not have done anything different than what Mr. Menezes did.

As bad as Friday’s events were, they were made worse by the fact that neither the police nor Mr. Menezes did anything wrong. In fact, both entities did everything right yet the situation escalated into a heartbreakingly irreversible mistake.

Now critics of profiling are bound to say that last Friday’s events were a glaring result of what can happen when racial profiling is officially condoned as a police tactic. This is the type of thinking that has lead to the travesty paraded as “airline security” here in the US where random checks are used in the hope of uncovering potential hijackers, officially legitimizing blind luck as an anti-terrorism tactic as if the various state gaming commissions have been moonlighting as Department of Homeland Security policy gurus. The results of tactics such as this are unsurprising. As a regular air traveler, I have seen numerous occasions where some wheelchair-bound grandmother gets groped by the security screeners at the plane’s entrance ramp while a group of men who could have been extras on the screen classic “Lawrence of Arabia” breeze through unmolested. Now, if the US were under attack by dispossessed and radicalized elements of the American Association of Retired Persons, I would not be so concerned by this recurring scenario. Unfortunately though, we’re not. I will be the first to admit that in most circumstances racial profiling is an unmistakable evil but in some cases, such as a war on terrorism, it is just common sense. If you are under attack by militant Islamic extremists from Saudi Arabia, having airport security guards getting to third base with geriatric Methodists does not do anything but undermine the public’s perception of the government’s intelligence, which is usually not very high in the first place.

Inevitably though, sound and logical police tactics are still going to raise criticism. Qari Asim, an imam with the Makkah Mosque in Leeds was quoted as lamenting (while the assumption was still that the victim was a probable suicide bomber), “They didn’t have to shoot him five times.” True, they didn’t HAVE to since, when dealing with cranial targets at point blank range, any shot fired after the first is nothing more than lead-based punctuation, but I think that it was a little premature and irresponsible on his part to try to second-guess the actions of the officers on the ground. He went on to suggest that officers should only have shot him one or two times in the leg to slow him down, as if a suicide bomber with a limp is somehow less dangerous.

Not to say that Britain’s minority communities do not have legitimate concerns. Inayat Bunglawala, spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain, described England’s Islamic community as being “jumpy and nervous” and frankly, I would be too if I were them. Thanks to the actions of an incredibly minute fraction of their community, they will now have to endure suspicion and scrutiny now for years to come even though the vast majority of them have done nothing at all to warrant it. Sadly, it is they who will have to bear the brunt of the consequences for the events of July 7th. They will have to realize that though they did nothing wrong, they will be the ones having to take extra precautions to ensure they are not mistaken as belligerents. They will have to take care to not appear threatening while taking advantage of London’s public transportation. Their community leaders have to continually re-emphasize that they do not sympathize with the thugs of al-Qaeda while every other community’s revulsion to the attacks are just automatically assumed. And they will have to actually put thought into their choice of accessories. For instance, I expect that makers of backpacks durable enough to haul electrician tools around construction worksites may find minority laborers suddenly opting for something less robust, but at the same time, significantly less intimidating. Something from the “Hello Kitty” line or apparel emblazoned with images of the Powerpuff Girls comes to mind. They will also probably find themselves second-guessing their safety instincts. After July 22nd, if a person of color finds themselves being chased down by a mean-looking gang of excitable belligerents hurling orders and colorful colloquialisms at them while menacingly charging at them like a stampede of raging rhinocerii, they will likely be inclined to just drop down to the ground in the fetal position and hope against hope that they are in store for nothing worse than a good old-fashioned street mugging or hate crime.

Though Menezes died at the hands of police, they do not bear the ultimate responsibility for his passing. That belongs to the people who detonated the subway and bus bombs on July 7th. Without them, British anti-terrorism police would have had no reason to consider Menezes a threat. Hopefully though, this unfortunate event will not force the British to undermine their own security effectiveness as a result as it almost certainly would have here in the US. It should also be said that though this tragedy will send shockwaves through Britain’s minority communities, they should find comfort in the fact that England does have due process of law and their rights will be far better protected in Leeds under the worst of circumstances than they would have been in Lahore under the best.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jep, I totally understand what you are saying. And to an extent, I agree.

But (there's always a but) shooting that guy in the leg would have stopped him long enough for them to arrest him and get the true story. What they did was to stick a gun in his mouth and shoot him five times. Not called for at all.

And the consequences of that rash decision are turning out to be dire. It's turned him into a martyr and made the police less likely to shoot to kill.

I think it is positively one of the most awful things which could have happened at this tempestuous time.

This world we live in really blows sometimes.


3:47 PM  
Anonymous Fade_to_Blah said...

Shooting a guy in the leg while he is running away and with people around is extremely difficult to do. Thats a tough shot......though sticking a gun in his mouth and shooting him 5 times (5 wtf?) is crazy.

7:52 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

I had not read anything about sticking a gun in anyone's mouth (anyone got a link?) If that was the case, then I would suspect something a little more than an officer trying to save commuter lives.

Hannah, I agree with your comment completely after the second paragraph. I still maintain however that the ONLY way there is any hope of stopping a suicide bomber is to kill him as quickly and mercilessly as possible. He has already resigned himself to dying so a shot in the leg (besides being next to impossible to execute on a fleeing suspect despite what Hollywood shows)is only going to inform him that the game is up and it is time to set off the detonator. As for the consequences of this event, you're right. Police will be more hesitant to act in the future and that could cause lives. As for Menezes becoming a martyr, I have a hard time believing he will as he is a Christian and to my knowledge, never ever claimed support of any Muslim radical cause. I think it would be a further insult to his memory if radical Muslim group's tried to turn him into some sort of martyr.

And Blah, you're right. If he took five to the back of the head, I can right it off as over-efficiency. If that gun was in his mouth, I would guess those two were making eye-contact which makes me think vigilantism.

9:35 PM  
Blogger JEP said...

Comment test....1...2...3

9:46 PM  

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