07/25/2005 09:22 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Death in London

As if the subway shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, an unarmed Brazilian man, isn't bad enough, now the British authorities are making it worse by insisting that they did nothing wrong in killing him. Instead, they are defending their new "shoot in the head" policy to stop suspected terrorists. (A policy that we have in the U.S., by the way.)

I still haven't read a good explanation of why this man was shot in the first place. That's because there is no good explanation.

Here, from Sarah Lyall's report in the New York Times, is the ostensible reason Menezes became a suspect:

"Having found the address in a backpack left behind by one of the bombers in the failed attacks on Thursday, the police were watching the building where Mr. Menezes lived. But they failed to realize, apparently, that there was more than one apartment there. So when Mr. Menezes left the building to go to a job on Friday, they followed him. They trailed him onto the No. 2 bus, bound for the Stockwell subway stop, a little more than 10 minutes away."

Let me emphasize something: the police didn't know that there was more than one apartment in the building. And yet they are considered capable of making a split-second decision about shooting someone in the head.

According to the police, Menezes was wearing a "bulky jacket," which made them think he might be hiding something. (I'd like to see a photo of that bulky jacket.) After plainclothes policemen allegedly identified themselves, Menezes—who had been attacked by a gang a few weeks before—panicked and ran. He actually ran headfirst into a train and fell on his stomach. One police officer then shot him, from behind, in the head. Five times. Which would suggest an element of panic on the police officer's part.

So let us consider two truths about this incident. Jean Charles de Menezes would never have been shot if he didn't have dark skin, because if he didn't have dark skin, he wouldn't have been a suspect. (This despite the fact that Brazilians look nothing like Pakistanis.)

And if he didn't have dark skin—if he were, say, a white Oxford student—the British public would be outraged, and the British authorities would be apologizing, rather than stonewalling.

But Menezes is Brazilian, and so he is dead.

It's easy to say that Menezes' death is really the fault of the terrorists, because in a war, innocent people inevitably become casualties. And certainly you can understand why the police would have been in a state of high anxiety.

But that is ultimately glib; try telling that to the family of a deeply religious, Catholic, English-speaking 27-year-old electrician.

Menezes died not because of terrorists, but because of police mistakes—they didn't know there was more than one apartment in the building!—mistakes for which the English government should apologize.

P.S. An acquaintance of Menezes remembers him here. The writer makes this point: "His English was OK, but he wasn’t fluent. He was pursued by up to 20 normally dressed men who screamed at him in a language that was not his own. Jean comes from Brasil, a country where violent crime is a lot more ‘in your face’ than it is over here. A group of plainclothes men screaming at you, chasing you, you fucking run."