Sunday, July 24, 2005

Shoot to kill

On Friday, when police in London shot dead a suspected suicide bomber on an Underground train, my reaction was, "Good, they got one." I have no sympathy for people who try to blow up other people on subways or buses. Yesterday police announced there had been a tragic error. The dead man, they said, had no connection to terrorism. He was an electrician from Brazil, who apparently was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He also made the fatal mistake of trying to run from plain-clothes police.

When I was a student in England in the 1970s, I took the train up to London from Brighton one day, to shop, but mostly just to wander around. London is the historic capital of the English-speaking world, and is endlessly fascinating. (As Samuel Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life....") Late in the afternoon, I was making my way back toward Victoria Station, walking across Green Park, when suddenly two men, who had come up silently behind, accosted me and demanded to see what was in the small bag I was carrying. They were tough, no-nonsense types, one on either side of me. I thought I was about to be robbed, but could see no escape. Hoping to frighten them away, I said something like, "Leave me alone or I'll call the police." At this point they produced identification: they were the police, in plain clothes. I assume they were on the lookout for drug dealers or IRA bombers. As soon as they saw there was nothing of interest in my bag (perhaps an apple and a book), they let me go. I spent some time on the way home being irritated at this rather menacing invasion of my privacy.

As I said, I was unaware of them until they were on either side of me. But if I had had a few moments warning of what I first took to be threatening strangers, I might have made a run for it. Would they have shot me? I doubt that they were armed, and in any case suicide bombers, who by their nature pose an immediate threat to anyone around, were not likely on the police radar screen then. They probably would have tried to run me down and tackle me. At worst, I would have wound up with some bruises and a determination to file a complaint. Not a bullet in the head.

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