Self-loathing over Stockwell

Behind the fallout over the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Far be it from me to doubt the good intentions of the Daily Mail, but since when has that paper been interested in defending ‘innocent’ immigrants against the ‘bungling’ forces of the state?

This morning’s Mail, like virtually every other paper and TV and radio news programme in Britain, expresses its ‘deep unease’ over the latest revelations about the shooting dead of the Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes by police at Stockwell tube station on 22 July, the day after the botched 21/7 bombings. It complains on its front page that ‘Yard chief [Sir Ian Blair] DID resist inquiry into killing of innocent man’, and reports inside on the ‘chaotic mess’ that has been the police attempt to explain what happened on that fateful day (1).

Certainly the new revelations are shocking and disturbing. According to witness statements taken by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and leaked this week to ITV News, de Menezes had not been running from the police or wearing a suspiciously bulky jacket, and he had been restrained by cops before being shot. Yet the fact that this info was leaked by the authorities and made into big news by ITV – and has subsequently provoked handwringing everywhere from liberal broadsheets to right-wing tabloids to Labour and Tory party circles – suggests that something other than an independent challenge to the police’s anti-terror antics is going on here.

Rather, this is an orgy of morbid self-loathing – where the tragic death of de Menezes has become a focus for the elite’s own doubt and uncertainty about the war on terror, and just about everything else.

In the past, politicians, the police and the papers never made much of a fuss about the killing of civilians by state forces. It was left to left-wing groups and small relatives’ campaigns to do that, and they were lucky ever to make it into the papers at all, never mind on to the front pages.

In the 1980s, John Stalker, one-time head of Manchester Police, was sent to Northern Ireland to investigate Britain’s shoot-to-kill policy there – and when he tried to make public some of his findings he had a Public Interest Immunity Certificate slapped on him, stopping him from speaking out. It was, according to one free speech activist, ‘one of the more remarkable government gagging orders of recent times’ (2).

In 1992, Channel 4 was taken to court and heavily fined for failing to reveal its sources in a documentary about collusion between state forces and loyalist paramilitaries in the killing of Catholic civilians and IRA suspects in Northern Ireland. Five years ago, the Police Federation virtually chased an independent film called Injustice, which reported on the killing of black people in police custody, out of the cinemas with threats of legal action (3).

Today, the fact that the killing of an innocent man by police hunting suicide bombers can cause such a storm – even on the front page of the Daily Mail – does not suggest a sudden lurch to the left in British society, or a newfound concern for those on the receiving end of state force.

Rather, it points to a profound sense of disorientation and defeatism in certain sections of society. This widespread response to de Menezes’ death is not motivated by a clear critique of the authorities, much less of the way in which they have ratcheted up fear of terrorism, which surely contributed to the way de Menezes was dealt with by jittery cops post-21/7. Rather, it is motivated by a kneejerk willingness to think the worst about the institutions of society and to treat their every word and deed with cynical disdain.

So those left-wing and relatives’ campaigns may still be around, trying to win ‘Justice for Jean’, but it is not they who made this killing into such a big issue. That was done by elements within the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which leaked shocking revelations and even photos of de Menezes’ corpse to ITV. And pressure has been put on Metropolitan Police Commissioner Ian Blair to resign, not by campaigners storming Scotland Yard, but by media outlets not previously known for their radical credentials.

Both the killing of de Menezes and the fallout from the killing are products of the same thing: a ‘culture of fear’ that has its origins at the top of society. The armed marksmen who pumped eight bullets into de Menezes (seven of them into his head) were acting on a message that was repeated by politicians and police chiefs after the 7/7 bombings – that a handful of cranky bombers pose a new, terrible and ‘unprecedented’ threat not only to life and liberty but also to civilisation as we know it. In such circumstances, it seems that it was not only about shooting to kill, but about shooting to save humanity. The police at Stockwell were acting on very panicky orders.

Meanwhile, the fallout over the Stockwell shooting is a consequence of the British elite’s inability to hold the line on just about anything these days – including the ‘war on terror’. No sooner had Tony Blair announced post-7/7 that we would not give into terrorists, but would stand firm and united, than the cracks started to show. This internal wrangling has come to a head over the death of de Menezes, and has now given way to a serious bout of self-flagellation: the police who were supposedly leading the fight against terror in London are now routinely depicted as trigger-happy thugs and were even referred to as ‘Nazis’ by one news show (4).

This has allowed the official response to de Menezes’ killing to spin out of control. Doubt has been cast on the inquiry of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, and now it is revealed that Brazil is sending its own investigators to London. The British authorities would have sneered at such a move in the past, especially considering that the police in Brazil are not known for treating suspects with kid gloves. Yet such is the disorientation within the British authorities that they seem incapable even of telling Brazil to ‘get lost’, which they wouldn’t have hesitated to do, in snotty and superior tones, not so long ago.

In the handwringing over the killing of de Menezes we see the influence of fear and defeatism over sections of British society. This does nothing whatever to challenge the ‘war on terror’ or the creeping authoritarianism that has accompanied it; rather, it seems likely to nurture precisely the kind of conditions in which fear and authoritarianism can flourish.

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) ‘OFFICIAL: Yard chief DID resist inquiry into killing of innocent man’, Daily Mail, 19 August 2005

(2) The Stalker affair, Violations of Rights in Britain Series 2 No.27, Charter 88

(3) See A film called Injustice, by Brendan O’Neill

(4) See After Stockwell: the threat of fear and defeatism, by Mick Hume

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today