After the attempted second round of bombings, the police were trying to prevent further atrocities. The dangers and tensions under which they operated may go some way to explaining how an innocent man came to be shot. But they do not explain or excuse the way the country was allowed to be misled about what had happened.
The police and security services have been brilliantly successful following the terrorist outrages. They rapidly identified the suicide bombers of 7 July, tracked down the failed suicide bombers of 21 July and the associates of both. The searches and arrests required professionalism and bravery, following up trails revealed by brilliant detective work. Their performance deserves our gratitude and praise. It would also have impressed and depressed terrorists and would-be terrorists.
The shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and its aftermath has changed all that. Terrorists the world over will be delighted. They want us to react to terrorism and the threat of terrorism in ways that bring us into disrepute. They want to bring us down to their level. They want to be able to exploit incidents which could appear to back up their false claims that our response is indiscriminate violence like theirs, that, like them, we don't value civil liberties and that, like them, we are liars and hypocrites. And that is how they and their sympathisers are exploiting the Stockwell shooting.
Clearly, what's good for terrorists is bad for our efforts to counter terrorism. We all need to be working together to help one another. To do that we have to be able to rely on what the police and security services tell us about what has happened, what is happening and what may happen in future. The way the public were allowed to be misled over the de Menezes shooting is in danger of undermining the credibility of official statements on terrorism, and this at a time when being able to trust in those set in authority over us has never been more important.
When it was admitted that Mr de Menezes was not a terrorist, the public were led to believe he behaved suspiciously like one. On a summer's day he was wearing a heavy coat, possibly to conceal a bomb, he was challenged by the police, ran into the Tube station, vaulted the ticket barrier, rushed down the escalator and, in his hurry, stumbled and fell through the train door. He was shot as a clear and present threat to the other passengers. All this was the outcome of a "shoot to kill" policy the public had never heard of until then.
We now know, as a result of a leak, that none of the suspicious behaviour attributed to Mr de Menezes was true. But for three weeks the public have been led to believe otherwise. The police, we now know, put the facts straight with Mr de Menezes' family two days after he was shot, and before the Independent Police Complaints Commission started their inquiry.
But they didn't tell the rest of us. Instead, they allowed the news media to speculate that, although not a terrorist, Mr de Menezes may have run from the police because of his immigration status. They also sought to reassure the rest of us that the "shoot to kill" policy wasn't a threat to innocent people. Mr de Menezes' death was portrayed as an awful demonstration of what can happen when people behave suspiciously and don't stop when challenged by the police.
Surely the police should have come clean. Who would have objected to the police putting the facts about Mr de Menezes' behaviour on the record? Not getting the truth out has harmed public trust in the police, embarrassed Britain's friends abroad, and delighted our enemies.
We must not let things drag on until Christmas. when the IPCC are expected to report. The police, the IPCC, the Home Secretary and law officers should get together to thrash out and publish a clear statement of the basic facts, what each of them knew and when. The alternative is more weeks of damaging leaks, rumours and innuendo.
The struggle to counter terrorism, the ability of the police to get on with their daunting and demanding tasks without distraction, and Britain's international reputation are all at stake. The best way to limit this damage is to get the facts out now. Tell the truth and shame the devil.
The writer was Health Secretary, 1997-9Reuse content