Making Excuses for Killing De Menezes

In the pubs as well as in the leader columns, there has been a depressing tendency to treat the De Menezes killing as an abstract ethical conundrum.

“THE Bombers Are Among Us!” the hoardings across London screamed. It’s the kind of headline that generates heat but not light. And it’s typical of the obstacles Londoners have to negotiate as they struggle to make sense of recent events. The rapid sequence of fearful happenings has bewildered many, as has the ceaseless concatenation of speculation and misinformation. We’ve been inundated by the non-sequitors of guilt by stereotype.

First, we were told that a man had been shot dead by police at Stockwell tube station because he was linked to the bombers. Then it emerged that he had no such link. We were told that he was suspect because he was wearing a bulky jacket and had leapt over the ticket barrier, which also turned out to be untrue.
Jean-Charles De Menezes, a young electrician from Brazil, was entirely innocent, but dead all the same. The Home Office hastened to inform the public that he had overstayed his visa and may have had a false stamp in his passport. What point were they trying to make? That De Menezes was a foreigner out to take advantage of us? That he belonged to a class of people whose human rights need not be respected?

After the deaths of more than 50 Londoners on July 7, those in the anti-war movement who insisted on placing this atrocity in the context of Britain’s role in Iraq were accused of making excuses for the bombers. But who’s making excuses now? Not only the right-wing press, long adept at marketing lynch-mob mentality, but even The Guardian, a by-word for British liberalism. In an astonishing editorial, the newspaper argued:

“The biggest mistake the police made was not the most obvious one of shooting the wrong man … The biggest mistake was not to properly prepare the public for the sustained campaign of violence facing the country … More should have been done to prepare the public for the forceful response needed to protect them.”

Of course, British liberalism has long been characterised by a tendency to ring-fence its liberal principles, especially in times of crisis. In the past, it remained largely unmoved by the barbarisms of colonial rule, and today it asks us to accept the summary public execution of an innocent man as a sad, but unavoidable, by-product of the need to combat terrorism.

`The price we have to pay’

We’re told that ghastly events like the De Menezes killing are a “price we have to pay.” As usual, the people preaching the doctrine are not the ones actually called upon to pay that price. Their own access to due process and freedom of expression will not be hindered. Most importantly, in the end, in this bargain you never get what you pay for. What you get is the cycle of terror and counter-terror that has chewed through so many societies.

Eerily, there’s an object lesson close at hand. Even as the London police besieged council flats and knocked down doors in search of the bombers, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared the end of its 35-year war against the British state. In response, the heavily fortified British military watch-posts along the Irish border were dismantled. It should have been a reminder of all the tactics that had failed or backfired in this bitter conflict: detentions, military crackdowns, media restrictions, shoot-to-kill. What didn’t work in Ireland was the suspension of due process, the licensed rush to judgment by the security services. Those tactics destroyed and damaged thousands of innocent lives (including 189 unarmed civilians killed by army or police). What did work was a long and arduous grass-roots political process.

In the pubs as well as in the leader columns, there has been a depressing tendency to treat the De Menezes killing as an abstract ethical conundrum. Are there times when it is necessary to take lives in order to save other lives? Are there times when the police have no choice but to shoot first and ask questions later? These questions are always worth discussing, but in this case they are an evasion. All the evidence indicates that the grounds for suspecting that the young Brazilian was about to detonate an explosion were flimsy, certainly too flimsy to warrant eight shots pumped directly into the man’s head and neck.

A line was crossed

Unlike the apologists for State terror, many Londoners are acutely aware that with the killing of De Menezes a line was crossed. The huge weight that should encumber the use of police violence, especially lethal violence, against members of the public has been lessened. The shoot to kill policy, we are now told, was agreed in secret two years ago. Thus capital punishment without benefit of trial or appeal has been smuggled in by the backdoor. Another pyrrhic victory in the war on terror.

Two hundred years ago, writing in a house in Lambeth not far from where De Menezes met his fate, the poet William Blake described London as “human awful wonder of God.” For this lifelong Londoner and intransigent radical, the city was always two-fold. He saw in it the seed of a multi-national democracy: “In the Exchanges of London every Nation walk’d, And London walk’d in every Nation, mutual in love & harmony.” But he also saw in it creatures easily manipulated by phantom fears: “They are obedient, they resist not, they obey the scourge: Their daughters worship terrors and obey the violent.” In the midst of a wave of domestic repression justified by England’s crusade against France, he pleaded: “Look up! look up! O citizen of London. Enlarge thy countenance!”

This essay originally appeared in the The Hindu.

MIKE MARQUSEE is the author of Chains of Freedom: the Politics of Bob Dylan’s Art and Redemption Song: Muhammed Ali and the Sixties. He can be reach through his website: