Answers needed on Tube shooting

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2005, 12:00am

The aims of terrorists are never easy to understand. But it is reasonable to believe they include the sowing of self-doubt and insecurity. If so, the London bombers have had a victory of sorts.

A society with a tradition of unarmed policing is now coming to terms with the killing by officers of an innocent terrorism suspect in a busy London Tube station. This has added to the sense of shock and unease that Londoners were already feeling after the July 7 suicide bombings and the botched attempt to repeat them last Thursday.

British police are generally considered to be less trigger-happy and to have a more sophisticated approach than their counterparts in many other parts of the world. Few carry guns and the number of times they have been fired in recent years is tiny by global standards.

Anti-terrorism police have been instructed to shoot to kill. But the shooting of an innocent man is a sign of how jittery they have become, at a time when British people are already feeling very nervous.

This is a testing time for a nation facing home-grown terrorism that strikes at its way of life. The range of reaction to the awful death of a young Brazilian electrician on his way to work is an example. Naturally, there are official regrets and apologies, and sympathy for the victim's family. Questions are being raised about a tragic mistake that must be answered.

But the government and much of the public have closed ranks behind the police, sympathising with the officer who fired five shots into the man, and demanding that he not be turned into a scapegoat.

The victim had the misfortune to live at an address that was under surveillance because it was linked to one of the July 7 suicide bombers. He was followed and armed police tried to stop him as he went to buy a rail ticket. He then vaulted a barrier, ran down an escalator and boarded a train, where officers caught him and held him down before he was shot dead.

The police faced a terrible dilemma. The suspect ran and they clearly thought he was about to detonate a bomb. If they had not opened fire, and a bomb had gone off causing many deaths, the criticism of the police would be even fiercer.

Who knows why he decided to run? But it is not an unreasonable reaction, especially for an immigrant, when confronted with men, not in uniform, who are brandishing firearms.

The tragedy does not obscure the fact that Britain continues to face a threat devoid of reason or restraint. Anyone can become a victim, whatever their religion.

The shoot-to-kill policy has broad community support, including that of moderate Muslim leaders and civil libertarians. But it has, understandably, set off a wave of anxiety among moderate Muslims and the wider British public that they, too, could be mistaken for a terrorist.

Sadly, this has dealt a serious blow to a police move to enlist Muslims to help defend against terrorism by monitoring their own communities. These efforts to build trust must be strengthened.

The immediate investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission should uncover all the facts of this tragedy and make them public. There is no reason why the police should be allowed to resist scrutiny of their actions for 'operational' reasons.

There is also a case for a public inquiry and a review of the shoot-to-kill policy. Suicide bombers pose special problems. Police cannot risk a shot to the chest, for fear of detonating the explosives. In this case they were acting on advice from overseas counterparts that a suicide bomber must be completely incapacitated to prevent him setting off the bomb.

But the tragic mistake has resulted in the loss of another life, added to those who were victims of the bombings. During difficult times such as these, an uneasy public looks to the police for security and reassurance. The shooting of an innocent man has not helped ease the tension.