On July 7, when I heard about the London terror attacks, I felt sad for the victims, but not devastated. A horrific thing happened to those people riding the subways, but no worse than what happened to the people in the World Trade Center or to innocent Iraqis living next door to criminals that were bombed to oblivion from the sky or to ordinary Israelis riding buses or shopping in malls every day. Just more senseless killing, but not an earth-shattering act. London did not stop on July 7 - businesses operated as usual, the stock exchange pulsed with activity. I did not even think the London attacks were worthy of much debate. What's to talk about, really? Terrorists attack the West. Did Bloomberg overreach when he instituted random bag searches in New York's subways? Maybe, but the intrusion on our civil liberties seems so commonplace now it hardly seemed worth the effort to discuss it. But then we heard that London police had shot and killed an Underground passenger. And so began the unexpected discussion.
We talked about the victim, a 27 year old Brazilian electrician. We talked about the police. We talked about terror. The people I spoke with expressed their sympathy for the police (and little for the dead man), saying how frightened the police must have been after 2 bombings in the subway and how they could hardly be blamed for having twitchy trigger fingers. I actually agree – I don’t blame the officers too much. But I don’t lay any blame on Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian, either. In fact, his death scares me more than subway bombs. Here are the facts of the case: police were suspicious of this man from the start, because he lived in the same neighborhood as the bombers. Plainclothes officers followed him to the subway station, actually boarding his bus. They noticed he wore a heavy jacket, which made him very suspect in the summer heat. And when he boarded the train and they yelled at him to stop, he ran. This odd behavior, while not normally a death sentence by any twist of the imagination, was enough for my friends to conclude that he alone was responsible for his early death in these fearful times. Who in their right mind could go on a London subway without being aware of the increased security and tension?
But consider this: First, the terrorists lived in his neighborhood not because it was a place that supported terrorism, but because it was a place that could escape notice. It was home to immigrants, but hard working ones. Before July 7th, police had no reason to suspect any sort of terror activity from there. Second, Menezes was from Gonzaga, Brazil, a small town about 200 miles from the coast. Weather there is closer to Florida’s than England’s. Today, the high in Gonzaga is 86º F. Today’s high in London is 64º F. Keep in mind that right now we’re in the middle of Brazil’s winter and England’s summer. I grew up in South Florida. If I were in London today, I’d be wearing a coat too. My mother, who thinks 64º is practically freezing, would be wearing a heavy coat, if she went outside at all. Third, it seems Menezes’s visa had expired recently. He probably could have renewed it, but neglected to do so. He probably lived with a daily, underlying fear that Immigration would catch up to him. Until July 7th, the worst scenario he could probably imagine was getting caught in a routine traffic stop or to have the police look at his papers. When he ran, he was running from plainclothes officers who had been following him from his home. Whether he knew they were police is in doubt. In addition, he had been attacked by a gang only a few weeks earlier. He had reason to be scared of people, especially if he didn’t know they were police.
In short, Menezes was caught in unlucky circumstances directly related to the fact that he was a foreign national. But why am I worried? Well, in 2001, Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijaakers, lived in my hometown in Florida, probably no more than a mile or two away from my parents. Would I be a suspect? Are my parents? I can’t even tell you the number of times I’ve run through airports since 2001, despite the knowledge that security was on alert. Now I wonder what my chances of being shot were. Am I really that different from this Brazilian guy? Can we really blame him and go on as if nothing happened? London police say that they were working on a revised security manual that says to shoot suspected suicide bombers in the head. The idea goes that if you shoot them in the chest, the bomb may explode. But this is flawed, because in Israel, every train station or restaurant or mall has armed security guards at every entrance checking bags and people. If it ever comes down to shooting someone in the head, they know the person is a terrorist. You can’t apply part of the Israeli solution to London and feel safe.
One last thing to think about – What is the mission of the London police? Is it to fight terrorists? If that’s the case, then by all means go shoot anyone you suspect. Or is it to protect the people who live, work, and visit London? If that’s the case (and I suspect it is, old chap), you don’t protect them by shooting them. How safe would I feel if I knew that if I wore the wrong clothes or acted funny, I might be a target of the police? How safe would I feel bringing my children to the subway if I knew that at any moment they may break out of my arms and start running away? And that I would run after them, jumping turnstiles and ignoring police if I had to? I don’t blame the officers. But I don’t feel any safer if this is our idea of security. 52 innocent people died in the bombings. So far 1 has died in the response. If the thought of us killing our own in panic isn’t the definition of “success” for a terror operation, I don’t know what is. We have to do better.