The Burdens Of Security

The tragic shooting of Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes in London has the UK in a state of shock, compounding the effects of the recent terrorist bombings.

At the same time, London police made the right call. Menezes refused to stop when confronted by police. He was wearing a bulky jacket on a warm summer day. There were reports from eyewitnesses that they saw wires protruding from his jacket. Were he wearing a bomb belt, dozens of people could have died. The police had a choice to make – do they take the risk that he wasn’t a suicide bomber or do they neutralize the threat?

The consequences of their decision were unquestionably tragic, but they made the right decision. Faced with those circumstances, the police chose to do what they had to do to stop what they viewed as a real danger.

Contrary to the armchair quarterbacks, real life is never cut and dried like some crime drama in which the bad guys are put away in 60 minutes. In this war against an enemy that has no compunction against targeting innocent civilians, decision-makers no longer have the luxury of assuming the best-case scenario. The argument that we should put blind faith in the idea that a potential threat won’t materialize is simply irresponsible in an age where a single bomb could devastate an entire city, or a vial of some virulent pathogen has the potential to wipe out millions. In such circumstances where we’re playing defense against terror, we have to bat 1.000 or thousands of people could be killed.

It’s certainly cold comfort to the police officers involved who have to live with the guilt of killing an innocent man in the pursuit of their duties. However, the actions they took were the right ones. As tragic as this incident is, had Menezes been a suicide bomber and the police not taken him down, the results would have been dead policemen and dead civilians.

The killing of Menezes was preventable had Menezes chosen to stop when confronted by the plainclothes officers – why he chose to run may never be known. However, when confronted with such a situation, the Metropolitan Police took the actions they felt were necessary to safeguard the lives of the civilians on that train. There are times when doing the right thing can lead to a tragic outcome – this was one of those times.

3 thoughts on “The Burdens Of Security

  1. I don’t think the police “Made the right call”. Suppose he had been a terrorist – captured alive he would have been a source of great intelligence both from what he might say and how his bomb was constructed. But in this case they didn’t make the right call. The guy did not speak English well and so did not understand the commands, he is from a country where avoiding a policeman may be the least expensive option, and he was not arab, not muslim, and NOT a terrorist. The police are too quick to assume that deadly force is the only way to stop someone. Don’t believe that suicide bombers cannot be stopped. Even in Israel bombers are dissauded and stopped or captured on occasion – and there they re VERY quick to use deadly force. The need for additional, and useful, non-deadly means of capturing non-compliant individuals has not been met because there is no public outcry and no moral compass stopping the police. Look at what we already have that “could” have been used if the police were told by society that deadly force is unacceptable – tear gas, tazers, rocket propelled nets, “instant bananna peal”, foam, high velocity bean bags. And the list would be longer if the market were larger, but police forces are not committed to less than deadly force. Why are these means mostly limited to crowd control? Because when crowds seek a political voice society demands a limited response.

    It sickens me that people continue to set up simplistic strawman arguments that it was either kill or be killed.

  2. Menezes was in England for 3 years, and it seems highly unlikely that he wouldn’t understand the words “stop” and “police.”

    By the time the police got to him, he was already in a train. A non-lethal hit leaves a potential suicide bomber able to detonate their explosives – the police made the right choice with the information they had at the time.

    Had they stopped him in a place where he couldn’t endanger civilian lives, and had they had some kind of non-lethal technology then shooting him would have been an overreaction. But when he was on train already, he’d been running from the police, and there was a reasonable basis to believe he might be a suicide bomber, the police did what they had to do under the circumstances.

    Yes, it would be nice if the police had some kind of Star Trek-style weapon they could use to stun the person and render them instantly unconscious. They didn’t, and that technology is at least several years away from being ready for field use.

    The police had the situation they had, and given those set of circumstances, they made the right call. Yes, it’s terrible that an innocent man lost his life because of a set of crappy circumstances, but the policy of doing whatever it takes to stop a suicide bombing is a sound one.

    (As an aside, when the Israelis capture a suicide bomber, it’s almost always at a checkpoint. I doubt that Londoners would tolerate that kind of security to get on a Tube train each morning.)

  3. To my mind, the wrong calls were made much earlier:

    First, the police let Menezes get on a bus and go to the metro station. They chose not to stop him as early as possible, thus gambling his life, and those of the metro passengers.

    Second, the ‘shoot to kill’ instruction was not made public. Clearly, any kind of advantage this secrecy might have had has now been lost, as it would have been at any first use, whether right or wrong.

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