We Are Not Alone

Friday, August 19, 2005

We Are Not Alone

Our biggest ally in the Iraq adventure parallels us in more ways than one. Tony Blair has been, if anything, even more eager than George Bush to suspend civil liberties (easier to do when you have no written constitution) and turn loose the security services and police without public oversight in the name of protecting sensitive information.

Also, Tony Blair is at least as proficient a liar as George Bush, the principle difference being Blair's greater facility with the English language.

The death of Jean Charles de Menenzes has highlighted both the dangers of throwing out the rules on police conduct and the duplicity of the British government (though, in this case, the principal suspected liar is another Blair, namely Sir Ian, the head of the Metropolitan Police). After the July 7 bombings in London and the failed bombings two weeks later, Tony Blair announced a new set of security and police measures--none of which would have stopped the actual July 7 bombers, of course. And around the same time, the police killed Jean Charles de Menenzes, a Brazilian, in a tube station.

Then began the false information (I deliberately do not use the word "lies"). Sir Ian went on television and told everyone the dead man was connected to anti-terrorist operations. This turned out to be wrong--indeed, senior figures in the police force at least suspected it was wrong when Sir Ian said it--and, the following day, the police apologized for having killed someone who turned out to be unarmed and unconnected to terrorists.

Well, that seems like the responsible thing to do, right? Except that the police now said that even though de Menenzes had been innocent, he had brought suspicion on himself and done things that led to the shooting: he'd emerged from the apartment of a suspected terrorist, he was wearing a heavy coat on a warm day and wires were sticking out of it, he ran when police confronted him and vaulted over the turnstile, etc. None of this was true. And, over the next few days and weeks, even though police knew it wasn't true, they did nothing to correct the falsehoods that they had peddled to the media. Not an uncommon approach when civilians die at the hands of police, both in the U.S. and in the U.K.

In the meantime, Sir Ian resisted the efforts of the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate the case, though eventually he had to yield. Then, earlier this week, someone leaked videotapes and other information from the IPPC's still-ongoing investigation, debunking the false story that the government had spread.

Then all hell broke loose, as you might expect, with calls for Sir Ian to resign, for police officers to be prosecuted, and so on; and officials of the Brazilian government planned to fly in to demand an explanation (because Brazilian police are renowned for their gentle treatment of civilians).

So, the logical thing was done: the person who had leaked the information was suspended.

As the Guardian pointed out, the investigation isn't over, and it would be improper to rush to judgment until all of the evidence has been gathered and made public. So far as what actually happened at the tube station, that is certainly the case. And even so far as culpability for lying or covering up is concerned, it's too early to say for sure who knew what and when he knew it.

But the longer this burgeoning scandal lasts, the worse it smells.

The de Menenzes case is a microcosm of much of the "homeland security" policies on both sides of the Atlantic since 9/11. The government asserts that the deprivations of civil rights, expanded powers of government, and reduced oversight are all compromises that have in fact made us safer because they've resulted in stopping potential terrorist attacks. But when individual incidents are examined, it turns out that we've caught a lot of innocent people and subjected them to a lot of misery; and it's damned hard to show that we've actually been made any safer as a result. When arrests are made using provisions of the Patriot Act and its U.K. analogs, they tend to be for ordinary crimes like drug dealing.

If the terrorists "hate freedom," then why don't we really piss them off: respect individuals' rights, require warrants and probable cause before searches; and generally protect people from the overreaching of government agents. That'll show Osama.

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