Howard Jacobson: How the death of a Brazilian became a cause - and a cause became a campaign

These ghouls aren't just feeding on Menezes' body; they are dining out on the family's grief as well
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The Independent Online

"The use of torture and ill-treatment remained widespread and systematic throughout the criminal justice system," Amnesty International reported in 2002, "at point of arrest, in police stations and prisons as well as in juvenile detention centres." And a year later - "Thousands of people were killed in confrontations with the police [who were] responsible for numerous killings in circumstances suggesting extra-judicial executions."

I would not dream of telling the Brazilian legislators to put their own house in order before turning their attention to ours - that would be inhospitable, and besides, it is open to them to do both - but we are not above seeing a little irony in the situation.

A death is a death. What happened to Jean Charles de Menezes is no less heartbreaking because it is duplicated in his own country every five minutes. Indeed it is more heartbreaking if we think of him believing he was safer here than he might have been at home. The story of the last morning of his life, as it continues to unfold, is distressing precisely for its unguarded ordinariness. Man leaves his house on a summer morning, man catches bus, man descends into Underground - does not vault any barrier, it would now seem, or do anything else suspicious or untoward - man runs for train. A normal morning, but for the seven bullets pumped into his head, in a normally safe city. I can see why his family are as perplexed as they are distraught. It is terrible to think of someone you love dying violently for no reason. And in another country. So they want some answers to some questions.

The answers they get might not be the answers they want. In the catalogue of motives, error is always the least satisfactory. Let there be a cause, let there be villains, or better still an orchestration of villainy, of which the loved person can be seen to have been an unwitting victim, and maybe his death won't remain for ever senseless. But when there is only mistake, and when the mistake is compounded by incompetence and farce, you're stuck with the existential blankness of absurdity. There was an almighty cock-up. Phones and cameras didn't work. Instructions were either improperly given or improperly received. Someone panicked. Consequence - the accidental death of an innocent bystander. Live with that if you can.

Enter the left. Enter George Galloway who, like some malevolent child out of Struwwelpeter - Little Georgie Thumb-a-Nose - cannot see a wound without wanting to rub salt in it. Enter, also, Asad Rehman, close adviser to Galloway, founder of the Stop the War Coalition, and now, what do you know, spokesman for Jean Charles de Menezes' family. And enter, of course, as sure as night follows day, the usual flotsam and jetsam of the Human Rights fraternity, the opportunistic solicitors and civil rights agitators, apologists for every act of retributive violence provided it is not perpetrated by the state, eager to find quarrel with a straw. Thus does a death become a cause and a cause become a campaign: "Justice4Jean" - resonantly political, as cute as a text message between lovers, equipped with its own website and the wherewithal to call a demonstration. That we now have, in the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Ian Blair, another Blair at whom we can shout "Bliar!" will not ultimately, I think, be lost on Mr Rehman. "Justice4Jean" embraces ideologies hard to tell apart from those espoused by the Stop the War Coalition. In the words of The Socialist Worker, "Police now regret this 'tragic mistake'. The real tragic mistake has been the illegal, immoral and barbaric invasion of Iraq."

You can always tell when a cause is built on a non sequitur. The giveaway is the phrase "the real", as in "the real villain" or "the real obscenity", meaning never mind your concerns, let's address mine. In fact the tragedy of Jean Charles de Menezes' death has no more to do with Iraq than with Noah's flood. If we are to speak of immorality and barbarism, "the real" barbarians are those who have enlisted the de Menezes tragedy to their political agenda. A ghoul is a malevolent spirit or person who robs graves. Asad Rehman and his fellow campaigners aren't just feeding on Jean Charles de Menezes' body; they are dining out on the family's grief as well.

The justice they are demanding for Jean Charles de Menezes we all demand. But in advance of the evidence, "Justice4Jean" has begun stipulating what that justice should be and how it should be meted out. Criminal charges, resignations, changes to police practices, an end to the "rising tide of racism and attacks on civil liberties in the UK". The usual. And should it turn out that the UK is not Brazil, that the shooting had nothing to do with racism or civil liberties, was a bungled operation by policemen unsure how to proceed and more frightened than we can afford them to be, will they be satisfied, or is their very breathing dependent on authority being found guilty of conspiracy and cover-up?

Of all the tyrannies there are to fear, the tyranny of there only ever being one subject, only one view, only one set of heroes and one set of villains, the tyranny of unquestioning same-mindedness, is the most terrifying. This is the future: not a boot stamping on a human face, but the rhetoric of rights and liberties stifling the human mind, closing down the human imagination - for ever.