On July 22, a 27-year-old electrician, Jean Charles de Menezes, was unceremoniously shot to death by police as he boarded a subway train in south London. His death came one day after Muslim extremists attempted unsuccessfully to repeat the bloody July 7 attacks–on three subway trains and a bus–that killed 52 people (and the four suicide bombers themselves). Tensions were running high and police knew that one more round of attacks could paralyze the United Kingdom and do irreparable harm to the nation’s economy and psyche. 

There was no debate about the fact that Mr. de Menezes had been shot eight times by a police officer (who actually fired eleven rounds at him). Initially, authorities justified the shooting by saying that de Menezes was wearing an “unseasonable” heavy coat–which could have concealed explosives–that he was running toward a subway train and disregarded police challenges to halt, that he tripped and was shot while he lay on the ground, and that he had an “Asian appearance,” which is often the way individuals from the Middle East are described in the U.K. Unfortunately, none of this was true. 

An official investigation, relying on cameras in the station and on eyewitness accounts, quickly shredded the police version of the incident. Mr. de Menezes, it turned out, was dressed in a lightweight blue denim jacket. He did not vault over a barrier, was not challenged by police, and was walking until he began hurrying to catch an arriving train. Finally, he was not from the Middle East but from Brazil, and was living in the U.K. on a valid work permit. 

Police officers apparently panicked and, fearing for whatever reason that de Menezes was a suicide bomber, pushed him into a seat, pinned his arms to his sides, and executed him. 

The unfortunate death of Mr. de Menezes has raised questions about the wisdom of shoot-to-kill policies when dealing with suspected suicide bombers. Clearly, the British police, among the best in the world, completely bungled the operation and their attempts to explain away the tragedy and lay the blame on de Menezes himself were reprehensible. But does one egregious error by London police negate implementation by other law-enforcement organizations around the world of drastic measures, such as shoot-to-kill, in addressing the threat posed by suicide bombers? 

A Theoretical Debate; the Practical Consequences The mantra of U.S. Delta Force commandos when taking down a terrorist has traditionally been encapsulated in a ditty which, although distasteful to some, clearly captures the essence of their mission: “Two to the body, one to the head, makes you good and dead.” In other words, Delta and other hostage-rescue units regularly practice taking terrorists out with two shots to the center body mass and one to the head. The head shot is necessary because the terrorist could be wearing body armor and thus easily survive two body shots and still pose a threat to hostages by detonating explosives or throwing a grenade. 

During the 1990s, one of this country’s NATO allies refused to conduct joint operations and training exercises with U.S. special operations forces, contending that the shoot-to-kill policy was tantamount to assassination. Although a wholly specious charge, it nonetheless created controversy at the Defense Department and in some congressional quarters. But is anything less than absolute deadly force practical when attempting to stop terrorists capable of killing dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of innocent people? 

A foreign-security specialist operating in Northern Iraq relates the story of his recent near-brush with death. He was standing in front of a critical facility smoking a cigarette when he saw a car suddenly veer off the road and head toward the building. He and other security personnel opened up on the car with their assault weapons. The car subsequently struck a post and came to a dead stop. When the security personnel reached the car they found that, although hit numerous times, the suicide bomber was still alive and attempting, with his dying breaths, to press a button in his left hand that would have detonated a trunk-load of explosives. Needless to say, they quickly dispatched him but were shaken by how many rounds the man had taken without being killed or incapacitated. For some time Israeli security personnel have operated under rules of engagement that permit them to shoot to kill suspected suicide bombers, because the consequences of not acting decisively and with finality are too great to risk the lives of innocent people.

Democracies at War

Democratic governments that put a high premium on individual rights have always struggled with the demands and contradictions involved in waging war. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus and instituted many other extraordinary measures to deal with the southern insurrection. Similarly, the Roosevelt Administration assumed new and unprecedented powers during World War II to address the national emergency facing the country. Lamentably, one of its actions was to relocate Japanese-Americans from the West Coast into internment camps in the American heartland. 

More recently, the Patriot Act and other extraordinary measures taken by the U.S. government in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks have come under attack from civil libertarians who maintain that the new powers devolving to law-enforcement and other government agencies are eroding Constitutional protections and personal liberties. 

Supporters of tough anti-terrorism measures counter such criticism by maintaining that the United States is at war and must take the steps necessary to protect the nation and its citizens. In Great Britain on September 13, British Home Secretary Charles Clarke told a parliamentary committee investigating the government’s response to the July 7 attacks that the U.K. security services are closely surveying hundreds of potential terrorists. Similarly, after 9/11 the U.S. Justice Department rounded up more than 1,900 suspects, mostly young Muslim males. 

Many believe this action disrupted any effort by Al Qaeda to carry out follow-up attacks in the United States. At the British parliamentary hearing, Sir Ian Blair, commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said how sorry the police force was about de Menezes’ death—but he also pointed out that the shoot-to-kill policy was still in place. “We made a small number of administrative changes,” he said, “but the essential thrust of the tactics remains the same.” “There is no question,” he added, “that a suicide bomber, deadly and determined, who is intent on murder, is perhaps the highest level of threat that we face, and we must have an option to deal with it.”

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.

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