Do shoot-to-kill orders make sense?

The funeral of Jean Charles de Menezes in Brazil (Jornal da Globo) The point-blank shooting of an innocent man on a London Tube train
mistakenly thought to be a suicide bomber is sending shock waves
throughout Britain and is clearly troubling the nation’s conscience.
Once again questions are being asked about the morality of a
shoot-to-kill policy.

The innocent man suspected of being a terrorist and shot dead was
27-year-old Brazilian Jean Charles de Menezes. He was in London working
as an electrician and was on his way to work when he was shot just
after getting on to a Tube train.

One eyewitness to the shooting was Mark Whitby, a passenger on
the train when it stopped at Stockwell Tube station, south London, where
Menezes fell into it or was pushed into it. Mr Whitby told BBC News he
had seen a man of Asian appearance shot five times by "plainclothes
police officers".

"One of them was carrying a black handgun -- it looked like an
automatic -- they pushed him to the floor, bundled on top of him and
unloaded five shots into him," he said.

The horrific error happened on July 22, two weeks after Muslim suicide
bombers, all British citizens, had killed 52 people on July 7. It was
also the day after another terrorist attack, but this time four bombs
had failed to explode on London tube trains and a fifth bomb was found
dumped in a hedge in Wormwood Scrubs. The city was bracing itself for
further attacks and the police had launched a massive operation to find
the terrorists who had escaped after their bombs had failed.

The first news of the terrible tragedy that was about to unfold was
when the police announced they had shot a man dead after he was
challenged and refused to obey an order. The same night Metropolitan
Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair went on television and stated the
shooting was "directly linked" to the ongoing London bombs inquiry.

But when police began questioning members of the dead man's family and
people who knew him, it soon became obvious he was no terrorist. He
was in fact a man who loved London. For him it was a city where there
was plenty of work and where he could earn good money. He felt it was a
wonderful place to be.

A Scotland Yard spokesman explained to the media that Mr Menezes had
emerged from a house under surveillance, was wearing a “heavy, padded
coat” which could have concealed a bomb, had jumped over barriers and
ran onto the train platform. "The police acted to do what they believed
necessary to protect the lives of the public," he concluded.

However it soon came to light that this was misleading and inaccurate
to say the least. The “house” turned out to be a huge block of flats
with hundreds of residents. The “heavy padded coat” turned out to be a
plain jacket. And Mr Menezes didn’t jump over the barriers but used a
ticket in the normal way.

And why did he run? An internet blogger had the answer: “What would YOU
do if three individuals accosted you, speaking a language which you
were unfamiliar with and drawing weapons?” The questioner concluded,
“You would RUN LIKE HELL!”

The disclosure of who had given the fatal order turned out to be
another shock. It was one of Scotland Yard’s top women officers,
Commander Cressida Dick, an Oxford-educated high-flier. It is chilling
to learn how she came to her decision that a man miles away should be

As undercover officers followed their suspect to Stockwell Tube Station
they reported their observations to higher command. These reports were
sent by police radio to Scotland Yard where Commander Dick was in
charge of firearms operations. It was reported that she quickly consulted
firearms tactical advisers and then decided to implement Operation
Kratos procedures.

Until then no one outside official circles had heard of Operation
Kratos, a pre-planned response for dealing with suspected suicide
bombers. Up to then, the standing instruction in firearms incidents was
for officers to fire at the offender's body, usually two shots, to
disable and overwhelm. But Operation Kratos lays down that that if a
suspect is believed to be an imminent threat, officers must aim for the
head, rather than the body, to ensure he or she dies immediately and is
unable to detonate his device.

So after receiving their orders, armed plainclothes chased their suspect
on the Tube train and shot him seven times in the head and once in the
shoulder. It was the Kratos procedures to the letter and carried out
with ruthless efficiency.

The former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens, had
devised the Kratos procedures. He explained in a newspaper that, “I
sent teams to Israel, and other countries hit by suicide bombers, where
we learned a terrible truth. There is only one sure way to stop a
suicide bomber determined to fulfil his mission: Destroy his brain
instantly, utterly. Which means shooting him with devastating power in
the head. Anywhere else and even though they might be dying, they may
still be able to force their body to trigger the device.”

He admitted that “the revelation that the man killed on Friday by an
armed police officer was, in fact, innocent of any bombing intent may
lead some to seriously question that policy. But we are living in
unique times of unique evil, at war with an enemy of unspeakable
brutality, and I have no doubt that now, more than ever, the principle
is right despite the chance, tragically, of error. And it would be a
huge mistake for anyone to even consider rescinding it.”

But the disturbing thing about the Kratos procedures is that they were agreed and
devised and put in operation through by-passing the normal British
democratic system. Parliament was not given the right to vote on the
subject or even the opportunity to discuss it. Kratos was secretly
brought in by Government officials and senior police officers who kept
the public in the dark.

Azzam Tamimi, of the Muslim Association of Britain, commented: "It
doesn't matter whether he (Mr Menezes) is a Muslim or not; he is a
human being. It is human lives that are being targeted -- whether by
terrorists or, as in this case, by the people who are supposed to be
catching the terrorists. I just cannot imagine how someone pinned to
the ground can be a source of danger." And Massoud Shadjareh, chairman
of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, called for a public inquiry,
adding: "You can't even put someone in prison on suspicion; how can you
kill them like that?"

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir
Ian Blair have both said there can be no change in the policy. They
consider a shoot-to-kill policy to be essential for the fight against

But many American security experts believe the shoot-to-kill policy
will be useless to prevent further suicide bombers now that they know about
it. The Americans say that whatever policy you choose, the terrorists
will adapt to make that policy the wrong one. The bombers, they say,
have only to change from using a press-button detonator to a dead-man’s
switch. Or the bomb can be wired up to a heart-rate monitor. Then, if
the bomber is shot, the bomb will still go off.

Another American expert has described the policy as "stupid" because
there are easy ways for attackers to counter it.  And, he went on to say,
“When you have a subway execution of an innocent man, the damage in the
hearts and minds of people worldwide is immense."

British Governments over the years, whether of the right or the left,
always seemed to have espoused “shoot-to-kill” policies. Margaret
Thatcher and her Conservative government received world-wide
condemnation when three unarmed IRA members were shot dead by
undercover members of the SAS in Gibraltar in 1988 in what came to be known
the Murder on the Rock. Eye-witnesses said that the three were given no
warning but ruthlessly shot down. Numerous television
programs critical of the British Government were made about the
killings and went round the world. The British government claimed that
the SAS shot the three men because they thought a bomb was about to be detonated.

And what has been the result of the latest “shoot-to-kill” mistake?

Commander Cressida Dick, who previously had been widely tipped to reach
the rank of Chief Constable, now faces an uncertain future. She has
been headlined as the woman whose order left an innocent man dead. And
what she and the three officers who actually carried out her orders
have done will no doubt haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Many people now believe a policy of “shoot-to kill” threatens not only individuals but society as a whole and democracy itself.

William Keenan is a British author and a former investigative journalist with the Daily Mirror in London.


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  • William Keenan