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After Stockwell: the threat of fear and defeatism

The response to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes suggests that we are losing the ability to have a rational debate about terrorism.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

Topics Politics

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Since the London bombings on 7 July, Metropolitan Police chiefs have repeatedly called for people to remain calm. The shooting of a 27-year-old Brazilian man at Stockwell Underground station suggested that, if anybody was panicking, it was the police more than the public. But reactions to the killing also reveal the extent to which, on all sides, there is now a danger of fear distorting the public debate.

The Met offered several explanations for why they shot Jean Charles de Menezes in south London on Friday 22 July, culminating in the Commissioner’s entirely false claims of a ‘direct link’ with the previous day’s failed bombings. By Saturday, however, they were forced to admit that de Menezes was an innocent man. Some details of what happened remain murky, but a palpable air of panic hangs over the police operation.

The armed plainclothes squad pursued a man essentially because he was not white and was wearing an unseasonably thick coat. They allowed him to board and leave a double-decker bus unchallenged. Then, when he ran away from them and jumped on a tube train, they apparently decided that he must be a bomber and shot him eight times, seven times in the head and once in the shoulder.

These crack anti-terrorist marksmen acted with about as much cool professionalism as the American gunman who shot dead a turban-wearing Sikh immediately after 9/11, for supposedly looking like a Muslim. But they were only acting on the message that has come from the top of the UK political and police establishment since 7 July. The panicky message has been that these few bombers allegedly pose an ‘unprecedented’ threat to our way of life, so that any liberty can be sacrificed or draconian measure justified if it is supposed to help stop them.

The shifting reactions to the unprecedented shooting on the Underground have been just as revealing. At first, when we were being assured that the dead man was linked to the bombings, there was virtually no criticism of what the police had done. Graphic eyewitness accounts from Underground passengers were being broadcast within a few hours of the killing, suggesting that the policemen had pinned de Menezes to the floor and then shot him eight times at close range. This is the sort of revelation that, in other circumstances, would have provoked instant protests. Yet London’s left-Labour Mayor Ken Livingstone and civil liberties lawyers were being broadly supportive of the police, with even Saturday’s edition of the Guardian sympathising with the officers’ terrible dilemma.

Later on Saturday, however, when it became clear that the dead man was no bomber, a different wave of reactions broke. While fear prompted some to stand by the police, the same sentiment drove others to turn on the Met. By Monday the Guardian devoted several anguished pages to analysing the life and death of Jean Charles de Menezes, now transported to the sainted state of victimhood. Many others in the media also decided that, actually, come to think of it, they were worried about a shoot-to-kill policy after all. Suddenly it seemed that any potshot at the police was acceptable; if, like me, you happened to be watching the ITV News Channel on Sunday evening, you could have heard the presenter read out a viewer’s anonymous email describing the Met as being as bad as the Nazis, in the same authoritative tone with which he might have read a press release from Scotland Yard.

This sudden turnaround in mood has nothing to do with any political opposition to an authoritarian state. After all, in many cases these were the same people and media outlets that had been happy to shelter behind the police force and its version of the shooting a few hours before. Instead, much of the belated criticism of the killing has simply expressed another variant of the emotion-driven politics of fear.

Fear of terrorism led some to side blindly with the police shooters; fear that trigger-happy cops might make things worse drove some to lash out at the Met. Many probably entertained both sentiments at the same time. Either way, fear is eating away at our ability to have a rational discussion about terrorism and our response to it.

And either way, fear can only fuel defeatism. It can lead us to give up our liberties and accept the growing power of the state without a proper argument. At the same time, fear can make us throw up our hands after something such as the Stockwell shooting, and concede that it would be better to do nothing than to risk making a mistake. Fear and defeatism are creating a strange public mood in the aftermath of the London bombings. Many people seem willing to allow the state to change the law and take whatever important liberties it sees fit without protest. Yet if the police try to put that ‘anything-goes’ attitude into practise, and make a mistake as at Stockwell, many of the same people recoil in shock.

It is time to get real, and have an honest, sober discussion about all of this. The political aspects of the ‘war on terror’ need to be subjected to much more critical debate. At spiked, we have always made it a priority to defend free speech and other liberties against the incursions of the state, and that has never been more important than now. The police response to the threat of terrorism also needs to be discussed more soberly. A panicky armed police force executing the government policy of ‘organised paranoia’ is certainly a grim sign of the times. But it is ridiculous to imagine, as some seem to now, that the police could treat suspected tube bombers as if they were dealing with drunks on a Saturday night.

Above all, we need to remember that fear and defeatism in all of their forms pose a far greater threat to a free and civilised society than terrorism can today. If we allow them to eat away at our critical faculties, we are going to have a hard job defending hard-won freedoms.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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