Saturday 13 December 2008
Deborah Orr: This tragic story is not over yet
It's well known that a shrine to Jean Charles de Menezes has been maintained outside Stockwell Tube station, since shortly after he was killed. I use the station a lot, and the makeshift nature of the memorial is a constant – and important – reminder of the failure of the Metropolitan Police to take responsibility for what happened on 22 July 2005. An official plaque marking the place where the one victim of the 21 July attacks lost his life would be decent and dignified. But that would signify collective sorrow at a terrible mistake, and the latter is what the force refuses to admit.
The jury in the Jean Charles de Menezes case has delivered the most critical verdict open to it, after sitting through a seven-week, £8m inquest. Almost three and a half years after the 27-year-old was shot dead, the public doesn't even know whether the jury might have delivered a verdict of "unlawful killing", had the coroner, Sir Michael Wright, not barred them from doing so. Needless to say, under the circumstances, the calls for a full public inquiry continue. It didn't have to be this way.
No inquest was needed in order to establish that the 21 July attacks on the London Underground had failed. The bombs of the four attackers did not detonate. But in the wake of attacks a fortnight before, killing 52 people and injuring another 700, the group had certainly spread terror. The failed perpetrators were on the loose, and one of them had fled from the Oval Tube station, which is near to my home. I was so scared a suicide bomber might be lurking out there that I flinched when the children went into the garden.
I accept that the police are human too, and have every right to be as vulnerable to terror as anyone else. The men who shot Mr de Menezes admit that their fear for their own lives, as well as those of everyone else in the carriage, influenced their decision to take no chances. It's baffling, though, that their experience on that day, of shooting an innocent man seven times while he was being held down, did not persuade them that they might prefer to stand down from armed response duty.
And the men who tracked Mr de Menezes from the block of flats in which he lived to Stockwell Tube station? They must have been paralysed with fear as well, in order to persuade themselves that they could not rule out the possibility that this man was Hussain Osman, because he was acting so "innocently". The armed team they had been promised didn't turn up. Even so, only fear could have stopped these men from finding the courage to challenge their suspect with the polite enquiry: "Hussain?".
And the people in the control room? They were insulated from fear for themselves. They were expected to stay cool, and orchestrate the frightening situation their people were in, with logic and calm. They didn't. For a start, they allowed the room to be packed with noisy observers who were uninvolved.
They misunderstood the surveillance team, and somehow persuaded themselves that the suspect had been identified as Hussain Osman, when he had not. Somebody's fear overwhelmed their judgement. No one is owning up, although the evidence points to the senior policewoman who led the operation, Cressida Dick. Dick's crucial command, given at various times to various teams, was merely that the teams on the ground should "stop" the suspect. Don't officers in the field deserve more explicit instructions than that? What does "stop" mean anyway, when you are talking to an armed response team? How could she, or her more senior colleagues, ever have believed that such an open instruction was worthy of the promotion they put her up for shortly afterwards? It was, in that climate of fear, an instruction to stop at nothing.
Oddly, the inquest jury indicated that it couldn't decide whether "the suicide attacks and attempted attacks of July 2005 and the pressure placed upon the Metropolitan Police in responding to the threat" had been factors that had "caused or contributed to the death of Mr de Menezes". What a pity that it even had to be asked such a thing. If only the Metropolitan Police had admitted that obvious fact at the earliest possible opportunity, pieced together a credible narrative explaining how things had gone wrong, expressed their sorrow at their mistakes, and undertaken to learn from them, not only about operational matters but also about the personal qualities of the staff who took part in that bungled investigation.
Honest and open self-appraisal would have delivered to the police the thing that they want so dearly – which is for the controversy around Mr de Menezes's death to vanish. Mostly, people understand that Mr de Menezes was the victim of terror. Only their continued self-serving cowardice stops the Metropolitan Police from admitting that they were victims of it too.
We can't bend the law to suit our own wishes
The televised suicide of Craig Ewert may have promoted lots of discussion, but it pulled in fewer than 250,000 viewers. Maybe this is because people are generally far too squeamish and sentimental about death, as pro-euthanasia campaigners argue. But I prefer to think that it's because our own experience of the death of loved ones leaves us little emotional space to gaze curiously at the end of a man unknown to us.
I would like to imagine that I would have the courage to assist in the suicide of a loved one, if I was sure that was the right thing to do, whatever the consequences might be. I know I'm supposed to feel sorry for Michael Grosvenor Myer, as he explains the hurt he felt at having to provide himself with an alibi, as his beloved wife killed herself alone, when they both would have preferred him to stay with her and comfort her. But it was he who decided to bring this issue into the public domain, and I'm bemused that he does not even consider the possibility that it may be his own choices that are misguided, and not the law.
There's a touch of bossy self-righteousness about people who believe that the law should be tailored to their needs, rather than to general principles. It's my belief that the law should discourage the worst impulses in humans, and let room in its interpretation to allow our own consciences to encourage their best.
The law against assisted suicide protects people who might be overly susceptible to the idea that they are a "burden" to others, and may be under the influence of others who are more than willing to foster that idea. The criminal justice system currently takes a firm line against such awful emotional blackmail, and is sympathetic when there is reasonable certainly that pressure has not been applied or felt.
Those who demand "openness" and "clarity" are frightening in their yearning for prosaic certainty. I prefer a system that is flexible enough to leave a little room for complexity and compassion, and sensitive enough to understand that it's best if some matters remain private, even secret.
The weird global media conversation between Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie continues, with Aniston's near-naked bid for attention on the cover of this month's GQ magazine. Jennifer, pictured this week at the premiere of her film Marley & Me, says Angelina was "uncool" for saying she looked forward to work while making Mrs And Mrs Smith with Brad, when he was still married to her. Brad says it's his favourite film, because of, uh, you know, six kids. Jennifer says such little truths make her look foolish and cuckolded, even though, for everybody else, that shot of Brad and Angelina holding hands on a break in filming seemed fairly decisive anyway. What is Aniston actually after here? A talking cure? Or a worldwide referendum to decide who is the true and rightful one? One wishes she would just stump up and organise it, for "closure".
It's not been the best week for "science". Men like long hair! We know, we've met some. Dogs get jealous! We know, we've met some. Elephants in captivity die younger. We know. We just know.
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