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Watch What You Say and What You Wear

What Jean Charles de Menezes Didn’t Know

by Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST

"Even in midsummer, he wears an overcoat and four jumpers if forced to leave the house. At dinner parties, he usually keeps a fur coat on. Nevertheless, people who greet him are surprised to find how cold his hands are."

How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton

"Wearing bulky clothing not in keeping with the weather is considered a sign of a potential suicide bomber." Telegraph.co.uk, "Shot Brazilian ‘did not jump barrier and run’, 8/17/05.

Jean Charles de Menezes, a young Brazilian man working as an electrician in London, was recently laid to rest, shot to death on a subway by British police who suspected he was a terrorist with a bomb. At first, the police said that he was wearing a heavy padded jacket on a hot day; as it turns out, he was wearing a light denim jacket. Then they said, Ah, but he was running away from us (sure sign of guilt)! But facts again do not back up this claim, as he was sitting on the train when he was shot. Another excuse was that he looked "Asian" and jumped the ticket barrier. Wrong again; he passed normally through with his ticket. He even stopped to pick up a free newspaper.

Yet many commentators were quick to give their seal of approval to this murder "because the police were worried he might be a terrorist". The underlying idea, put forth by President George Bush and adopted of course by Tony Blair, is that anything done in the service of "protecting the public from terrorism" is permissible. As long as no one of any importance or social status or wealth is harmed, the fine heartfelt intentions of the police and the military must, according to this line of reasoning justify any and all barbarities and criminal acts.

One member of the public was not protected, but he was not a person of political importance or wealth. The reasons given for the murder are many. For those who believe in safety-through-violence, this is a non-issue: Of course they "had" to shoot the man as he sat on the morning train. The police were jumpy. They were nervous. They felt pressure. Mr. de Menezes looked suspicious. He appeared to be Asian. He was wearing a baseball cap. Worst of all, he was wearing an overcoat in midsummer.

The Hazards Of Looking Different

Who but a terrorist would, during warm weather, have the effrontery to look Asian or wear a coat or a baseball cap?

We’ve been reassured time and again that this look of suspicion was sufficient cause to blow the man away: The police didn’t have the luxury of taking the man in for questioning: They had to shoot him execution-style with 7 shots to the head and one into his shoulder, lest that treacherous suicide bomber manage to detonate the deadly package hidden beneath his coat.

But wait. The "Asian-looking" Brazilian man wasn’t a suicide bomber. There was no deadly package beneath his coat. And he wasn’t even Asian. He had no connection to al Qaeda. But we are not supposed to mind this minor discrepancy. Why should the police suffer censure or penalties simply because their suspect turned out to be innocent, post-mortem? After all, they were "rattled", "worried", "pensive", "nervous", and "tense".

More than anything else, however, what compels me to write this now, was the first official police justification I heard after Mr. de Menezes was murdered: He "looked suspicious" because he was wearing an overcoat in the middle of the summer. Who but a terrorist would do such a thing?

As Alain de Botton notes in his delightful book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, the brilliant novelist and observer of human nature Marcel Proust was extremely cold-natured. I sympathize, as my friends and family can attest. I never enter any enclosed public space without a sweater, jacket, coat, or in one case, a large knitted afghan. When oil hits $100 per barrel and drastic rationing is underway, my sole satisfaction will be entering grocery stores unencumbered by sweaters and coats.

We Have To Watch What We Wear

Has the time come, in American and British society, when we must watch not only what we say, as former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer so presciently warned, but what we wear, as well? Before you set out for your next appointment or dinner date, ought you take a good look in the mirror to double check you Suspicion Index (SI)? How long will artists, writers and absent-minded professors be allowed onto trains and buses, three groups notorious for un-matched layers of clothing donned with precious little forethought or care?

And what of those whose skin and features tragically fall into the category of the police designation known as "Ethnic White", as was the case of poor Mr. de Menezes? Who of us can ever really know if the color of our skin is safe enough for public transit?

Perhaps it is already too late for many of us-even passing successfully through metal detectors cannot lay to rest the suspicions of alert security forces regarding poorly dressed passengers whose outfits just scream "terrorist". Perchance the day has come for creative personalities to travel by foot, lest they suffer the same fate as Mr. De Menezes.

We in the wild, wild West have, at the urging of "the authorities", be they Homeland Security, George Bush or Tony Blair, begun to accept the unacceptable, justify the unjustifiable, and pardon the unpardonable-as long as our dirty deeds are done for the purpose of stopping "terrorists".

"The Met Police Chief has insisted that the policy of "shoot-to-kill in order to protect" should continue. Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes, 27, was shot dead in error by police at Stockwell Tube station as part of the inquiry into attempted bomb attacks. He was later found not to be connected to the incidents. Met Police Chief Sir Ian Blair has apologized to the family and warned that more innocent people might be killed in the fight against terrorism." BBC.com Talking Point, 8/3/05

It always starts small, this kind if ethical side-stepping. Reasons are given, and fears are stoked. Commentators agree that "under these circumstances" torture, shoot-to-kill policies and breaking international laws can and should be forgiven. Citizens, increasingly fearful of terrorists and police alike, begin to acquiesce. They go along with the authorities, who assure them that drastic steps are necessary in order to maintain safety and order.

So people start making adjustments to their appearance, trying always to keep a low profile, to not stand out, to avoid looking suspicious. The creative ones are easy targets, and so are those with the wrong skin color, the wrong nose shape, the wrong slant of the eyes.

It’s certainly been done before.

"The Reichstag fire Decree suspended all legal protection of speech, assembly, property, and personal liberty, permitted the authorities to arrest suspected "terrorists" (i.e., communists), and gave the federal government authority over the state governments’ police power. After that, few Germans were prepared to resist" The Anatomy of Fascism, by Robert O. Paxton

Dr. TERESA WHITEHURST is a clinical psychologist, author of Jesus on Parenting: 10 Essential Principles that Will Transform Your Family, (2004) and coauthor of The Nonviolent Christian Parent (2004). She offers parenting workshops, holds discussion groups on Nonviolent Christianity, and writes the column, "Democracy, Faith and Values: Because You Shouldn’t Have to Choose Just One". Visit her website.

You can contact her at DrTeresa@JesusontheFamily.org