Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Perspectives on police shooting

One left academic list that I am a member of, has been inundated with hyperbole and paranoia over the last few days re: the police shooting in London on 22/7. So this no less outraged but well argued legal and moral perspective on the tragedy is a refreshing change (via a friend's private blog).

Today's Hindu editorial offers a contrapuntal reading of police shooting in London and Kashmir. 'Motive apart, the substance of both acts was indistinguishable from cold-blooded murder, especially as there was no question of pleading any right to self-defence in the circumstances.' But can you really judge such acts 'motive apart'? Doesnt one's normative evalutation of such acts (murder or manslaughter) turn on the question of intention? And if the intention was to protect, can London be called a case of 'state terrorism'? (Another opinion piece in today's Hindu uses the phrase 'state terror'.)

I'm more willing to characterise Kashmir as a case of state terrorism, because the state has been using violence there for decades with a view to shaping the political situation. But is there a political dimension to the police shooting in Stockwell? (Were they trying to sow fear in the hearts of non-white minorities, etc.?) I think not, and in the absense of a political dimension to their use of force, the label 'state terrorism' is hyperbolic. One might - after an inquiry - discover that there were institutionalised racism in the police force, but even that would not justify using the word 'terrorism' to describe what happened at Stockwell, in the absence of a political agenda.

In objecting to the label 'state terrorism', I don't wish to underplay at all the seriousness of what has taken place, or the fear that people who are Muslim (or look Muslim - how does a Muslim look?) might feel at this time. I just think that language is becoming an unacknowledged casualty in the atmosphere of paranoia that seems to engulf us. In using phrases like 'state terrorism' and 'police state' (John Gardner) to describe London post-22/7, we cheapen them and do violence to contexts that actually warrant those labels (state-sponsored communal pogroms, paramilitary death squads, and situations like that in Northern Ireland, where there have long been links between the British army, RUC and Protestant paramilitaries). It may be right to point out that London is on the same continuum as these other contexts and it is certainly right to warn of a possible slide into situations like these. But we are emphatically not at that point yet.

What disturbs me is that in order to avoid tragedies like 22/7, the state needs to know more so that it can target better - more intelligence, more surveillance, more CCTV cameras, more community penetration (or whatever the latest euphemism for 'knowing what Muslims think' is). Avoiding what commentators are already (and prematurely I believe) calling 'state terrorism' and 'police state', seems to require becoming more like a police state. That is obviously very worrying for civil liberties advocates, but to prevent this from happening we need to offer alternatives that protect liberty and security.

Discussions about the protection of civil liberties and security are often separate conversations with different protagonists - organisations like Liberty in the former and the Met and MI6 in the latter - with each offering advice from the perspective of the values it prioritises. Government is supposed to be the great balancer, listening to all these voices and making the necessary trade-offs. But I wonder if organisations like Liberty need to start talking about security - i.e. making arguments for the protection of civil liberties that take security considerations into account - not as a substitute for the sorts of thinking and balancing that government needs to do, but in order to be taken more seriously themselves. (This can sound dangerously like an argument for Liberty to be less forceful in its defence of liberty, be more 'realistic', etc. I can't solve these problems this afternoon, so I'm going to log off now.)

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