Despite the vast amount of coverage of the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, it is remarkable how little of it directs the finger of blame, moral, legal or otherwise, towards those who are ultimately responsible.
The extraordinary circumstances of that day are the single most important factor in this accidental killing of an entirely innocent man by armed police. This in itself goes a long way to explaining quite how unusual this event is in the history of the United Kingdom. There is simply no precedent for an unarmed man being deliberately killed by armed officers in a non-criminal situation.
Obviously, safe-guards must be in place for such a set of circumstances but, given that London is not Tel Aviv, any such set of controls will necessarily be insufficiently tried and tested. However, it does seem that there were certain failures of communication within the command structure of the security operation. The question which must be answered, and it is unclear from the open verdict given today whether or not it directly was, is whether these failures are tolerable, i.e. unavoidable, within the operational constraints of an emergency situation with high potential casualties.
This is the counterfactual which seems to have been ignored by media commentators. If you don’t make a snap-decision, if you don’t open fire, and twenty people die and forty are injured, and then the excuse you offer in the subsequent enquiry is that you only had one photo from a gym membership card and the lighting wasn’t at studio-level, would this not lead to immediate and justified calls for a complete revision of your operating protocols and the sacking of senior officers involved?
Equally, the so-called balanced reporting of this event is utterly compromised by the failure to entertain the counterfactuals which are the only possible justification for these sorts of actions. (Here we have a concrete example of just the sort of ‘ticking bomb’ scenario which has kept moral philosophers, lawyers, politicans and the intelligence services in debate for decades.) A witness pointing out that armed officers facing a man who may be strapped with explosives seemed so agitated to her that they were out of control may be newsworthy in a prurient sense, but how are…