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.