Thinking Anglicans

Stigamup

Some small Parisian boys, back from their Saturday morning at the pictures almost half a century ago, were anxious to know the formula spoken by a cowboy holding a gun when he required someone to raise their hands in the air. The films had sub titles, rather than being dubbed, and the boys were convinced that there ought to be a definitive, universally understood expression. To their way of thinking, saying “Stigamup”, or something like it, usually guaranteed that in the lawless western frontiers of the USA, an unnecessary shooting was often avoided. Whilst the first application of this expression would be in their games, maybe they were thinking that, were they ever to travel to the wild west, they would need to recognise the one phrase which demanded instant obedience.

Just as everyone understood the culture of American Westerns, in which the law was that of the gun, so people knew that in Britain, the law was represented by an unarmed officer of the Crown in a dark uniform, with an immensely tall, distinctive hat.

On my way to Paris, I had arrived at Euston station in the early morning on a postal train. The tube hadn’t started running, so there was nothing to do but wait. Two dishevelled, unshaven men asked me my business. They presented me with their police warrants as proof of their good intentions. Presumably they were wondering whether this schoolboy had run away from home.

I didn’t believe them. What could a police warrant mean to me? They declined my offer to verify whether they were who they claimed to be by going with me to the police office clearly visible on the station. So, after a few more questions which I refused to answer, they left, as they said “in order to preserve their anonymity”.

It is perfectly possible that a visitor to London today would still expect the capital’s police to be identifiable. A real Bobby still has a tall hat. Armed police on television are in uniform, and guns are carried with a prominent swagger. With this level of understanding by the public, any first encounter with a plainclothes officer could give rise to misunderstanding. He might be regarded as a potential thief or a mugger, which is exactly what I thought of the men who approached me. To an innocent person, an armed man with no uniform would appear to be a criminal.

Our police have obviously little idea of the huge change in culture that would be required before someone with a gun but no uniform might, on shouting “Stigamup” get the same response as that seen in old western films.

Nor do the police appear to understand the gulf in perception which being on an anti terrorist mission puts between them and the ordinary public. Statistically, our experience of the police is not about terrorism. It is confined to speeding fines and parking tickets. Our thinking and that of the police are worlds apart.

It also appears that, if the word “terrorist” appears, normal behaviour by the police is suspended. Actions can look like the result of an adrenaline fuelled high rather than following from a proper assessment of information. “Intelligence” in the case of the shooting of Harry Stanley in 1999, for carrying a chair leg in a carrier bag, or in the case of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, was woefully inadequate. The fact that the latter was killed by a hail of bullets adds to the impression that adrenaline had taken over from reason in the minds of all the officers involved. Long hours, no leave because of the current emergency, and a constant feeling of being under pressure can’t have helped.

It is difficult to see how such mistakes can be avoided, when the gap in perception between an ordinary innocent person going about their business and the police officer, pumping adrenaline and believing himself to be on an anti-terrorist mission, is so high. If Harry Stanley was shot for having an “Irish” accent, when he was clearly Scots, and a Brazilian gets shot for appearing middle eastern, the potential for further cases of mistaken identity is enormous.

What makes things worse is the attempts to blacken the name of the innocent victim. We’ve heard that he was in the country illegally, that he was fiddling with wires, that his jacket looked as though it concealed a bomb. All of this and more now seems false, and the police hadn’t even checked to see how many flats lay behind the shared entrance.

Half the population of London — that is anyone other than a white Anglo-Saxon, must feel that they are under suspicion. They must feel threatened by both terrorists and police. In the heat of the moment they won’t know whether someone in plain clothes with a gun is a police officer or a terrorist taking hostages.

It is hard to know what a Christian, particularly a white Anglo-Saxon one should do. Certainly we need to put ourselves alongside those who feel afraid. Do we need to show our solidarity with those who may be targeted by looking like them? Should we darken our complexions, dye our hair black, and for good measure adopt at least one item of middle eastern attire? Perhaps then at least, travelling around London, we might be able to experience the hostility and alienation currently felt by many Muslims. Or do we wear and wave a Brazilian flag, as the sign that the man who was killed was our brother and our neighbour?

It is even harder to know how the police should behave. But surely there is a case for continuing as normal, for engaging people in conversation in a way which does not immediately look threatening. We know how to respond to “Excuse me sir, just a routine enquiry.” We don’t know how to react to guns, and the police appear dangerously unaware of that.

It isn’t easy to know what to do in the face of a terrorist threat. But when we kill innocent citizens, the terrorists are the only people who win.

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CyrusAlan HarrisonMattJ. C. FisherTim Stewart Recent comment authors
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Alan Harrison
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Alan Harrison

What I think emerges from the cases of the late Mr Stanley and Senhor de Menezes is a dangerous gap in police firearms training. Shouting “Stop! Armed police! Drop the weapon!” or something similar works very well if the suspect knows that he is a suspect. Hence, in the classic case of an armed robbery, shoot-outs with the police rarely happen. A competent armed robber reasonably concludes that an exchange of gunfire with better armed and trained police officers will probably end in his death, while surrender will merely lead to the accepted professional hazard of a period of imprisonment.… Read more »

Tim
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Very well said, that Tom. And these are the police who want *more* powers? Earlier today I read the line “What appeared to be straightforward linear thinking last week doesn’t appear to be so today”. This is so true: there is still copious doubt that they were suicide bombers, on 7/7. For this reason alone, I consider it wise to have a constitution forbidding knee-jerk legislative reactions to major events for a given minimal time-period. As for our police … I would like to think of them as being paid to keep the peace. I’m still absolutely horrified that they… Read more »

matt
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matt

It is beyond me why anyone in the current circumstances would be so unhelpful to undercover police – with warrents and in the sight of uniformed officers. If they weren’t asking for your bank details or your exact address etc, why on earth would you not help them? I’m also amazed at how quick people have been to criticize the officers involved in the shooting of the Brazilian man. I’ve not seen it mentioned anywhere how brave it was for these officers to do what they did, even though it was a tragic mistake. They would not have killed this… Read more »

Tim
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Matt writes: > It is beyond me why anyone in the current circumstances would be so unhelpful to undercover police – with warrents and in the sight of uniformed officers. If they weren’t asking for your bank details or your exact address etc, why on earth would you not help them? … etc etc So. What is a person in jeans with a gun? What is someone who shouts “Police! Stop!”? Big hint: without the uniform, they are not police, they are criminals. I certainly would look around to see who’s yelling, and assessing that the shouter is not a… Read more »

Cyrus
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In my experience as a human being, we learn from our mistakes in most of our activities, and sadly this is no exception. We should hope the police are not put in a position where they risk making a mistake like this again. I hope we’re not forgetting whose moral decisions will determine whether or not that is the case.

Tim Stewart
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Tim Stewart

“Matt writes: > It is beyond me why anyone in the current circumstances would be so unhelpful to undercover police – with warrents and in the sight of uniformed officers. If they weren’t asking for your bank details or your exact address etc, why on earth would you not help them? … etc etc So. What is a person in jeans with a gun? What is someone who shouts “Police! Stop!”? Big hint: without the uniform, they are not police, they are criminals. I certainly would look around to see who’s yelling, and assessing that the shouter is not a… Read more »

J. C. Fisher
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“whose moral decisions” Who would that be, Cyrus? The “them”? Tom asks a compelling question: “It is hard to know what a Christian, particularly a white Anglo-Saxon one should do.” In the annals of warfare, for the past century or so, there are plenty of stories of soldiers throwing themselves on top of a live grenade, to save their comrades (or perhaps even civilians). It seems to me—especially in light of a “suspicious” case, like Mr. Menezes was said to be (w/ his summertime coat)—that this item of military history provides exactly such a pertinent model. Think someone might be… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

eh? I’m bemused at why people would automatically think that people in jeans, carrying a gun (in Tom Ambrose’s case showing a warrent) and declaring that they are police, are criminals and are not plain clothes police officers as they are claiming. They may possibly be criminals, but it is extremely unlikely – much, much more probable is that they are actually police officers trying to do their job in difficult circumstances. I’m astonished, that this incident has exposed the fact that normal, everyday people are unaware that police sometimes don’t wear uniforms in order to facilitate the prevention and… Read more »

Alan Harrison
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Alan Harrison

Matt asked: “BTW, what training exactly would you recommend to fill the gap, Alan Harrison?” I don’t know. I’m not, and don’t pretend to be, an expert in that field. I assume, however, that experts do exist who could address the issue. I make no assumptions abour Senhor de Menezes’ actions or the reasons for them. There has been much contradictory speculation about what he did and what might have been his state of mind. The Stanley case is clearer in many ways, lacking the conjectural complications arising from Senhor de Menezes’ having been a foreigner. What unites the two… Read more »

Cyrus
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‘”whose moral decisions”

Who would that be, Cyrus?

The “them”?’

That would be anyone who is minded to become a suicide bomber, J.C. Fisher. Some people think Bush and Blair make them do it. Me, I think they’re equipped with moral faculties like anyone else, and they make a choice.