By Gary Younge Guardian/UK 18 November 2015
The descriptions varied. Officer Frank assumed he was “a white man”, but thought: “It would be worth somebody else having a look.” Officer Ivor believed he had “Mongolian eyes”; Officer Harry said he was “acting in a wary manner”; Commander Dick thought him “very, very jumpy”.
But a consensus soon emerged: he was a jihadi about to blow up London’s tube. Within an hour the descriptions were unanimous. He was a dead man. The police had put seven bullets in his head. Within 24 hours a new consensus was taking hold. They had all been completely wrong. He was not off to spread terror through the capital, but to fix a broken fire alarm in Kilburn. He was not a terrorist, but a 27-year-old Brazilian electrician. His name was Jean Charles de Menezes.
Any shoot-to-kill policy inevitably rests on the presumption of guilt, often of a crime that has not yet taken place. In the most literal sense of the word, such policies are based on prejudice – a judgment made about who someone is and what they might do, prior to any evidence about either. Those presumptions do not come from nowhere. They are rooted in an array of received wisdoms – a constellation of probabilities, generalisations, bigotries, calculations, likelihoods, falsehoods, archetypes and stereotypes. Judgments are made through the crosshairs of a firearm. The verdict is always the same – death. There is no leave to appeal.
In the stampede to defend and extol western values – whatever they are – against the onslaught of barbarism, it should be recognised that the principles of freedom and equality have never applied to all in the west except in the most formal sense. The criminalisation of communities of colour (and the Irish in Britain) long preceded the war on terror and will, unfortunately, survive it.
Fascism is once again a mainstream ideology in Europe, and Muslims are among its principal targets. Knowing what the odds are for black and Muslim people to be stopped and searched, the ramifications of a “don’t stop, just shoot” policy do not bear thinking about. “Anyone may be a soldier in disguise, waiting to strike at the heart of our social slumber.” The young man with a backpack might be late for football. Once he's been shot, it’s too late to find out.
Those who might insist that racial sensitivity is a luxury we cannot afford at such critical times should realise that it is precisely the trust of black and Asian communities that is most needed to combat this particular fundamentalist scourge. Moreover, if unity against terror is genuinely what we are aiming for, it cannot be achieved by forcing some to live in terror of the state so that others can enjoy the illusion of security – we’re either all in this together or we’re not. Finally, the murder and humiliation of innocent people abroad at the hands of western forces is partly what has brought us to this point, helping to mobilise large numbers of disaffected Muslim youth. Being as callous and careless at home as we have been abroad will hurt, not help.
Police officers thought that De Menezes looked suspicious because he changed buses and looked fidgety, which is apparently how a well-trained terrorist would behave. It turned out he switched buses because the tube stop was closed, and was on edge because he was running late for work.
And when people are refracting their impressions through a lens of fear they rarely see straight. De Menezes was shot two weeks after jihadis had attacked tube trains and a bus in central London and a day after the failure of another plot. People were understandably jittery. Initial witness reports said that De Menezes was wearing a suspiciously large padded jacket on a hot day, had vaulted the ticket barriers. [Abridged]