Friday 2 June 2006

Back in the Firing Line

The shooting and wounding today of a Forest Gate resident has turned the end of my street into a media circus. Outside broadcast vans block the pavements and journalists are standing around looking down an empty Lansdown Road at an innocuous-looking tent outside the house that was raided this morning. A crowd has gathered to join them in their inactivity and no one seems to know what is going on.

This lack of information has led to some fairly wild speculation all day – there was one rumour that there had been a shooting outside Forest Gate train station – but it is not just local people who have been adding their own theories to the mix of conjecture and assumptions about the raid and its significance. Sections of the press have been busy too and they have none of the understandable scepticism about the competence of the intelligence services that most of us have post the Iraq ‘weapons of mass destruction’ fiasco, or the shooting of an innocent Brazilian in Stockwell.

The Sun managed to find a resident to tell them that he was always suspicious of the "bearded brothers" and “they [sic] were a lot of comings and goings at that house, those boys had radical views." Just in case readers had failed to realise the men who were shot and arrested are Muslim, the paper helpfully said that they “worshipped at a mosque and prayer room located just around the corner from their door.” Sun journalists also quoted a neighbour, Dimple Hirani, saying that "it is creepy there are people like this living on your doorstep," although what she really said in an interview on Channel 4 News was that “it is shocking this can happen on your doorstep.” Moreover, she also told news agencies that the two men “were really nice lads and really nice people… I never thought anything of it [their religious beliefs]. Lots of young Muslims these days are getting more religious, especially after 9/11. It's nothing to be suspicious about."

She’s right of course, but we can all see where this is heading. The men arrested in the raid were religious, they had beards, they attended a mosque, so they must be guilty if the intelligence services are interested in them. Once again, millions of newspaper readers who have no idea what Forest Gate is like will be reminded of the imperative of suspicion towards Asian Muslims and the need for armed officers to use potentially lethal force.

But the lack of information also tells us a great deal too. You can bet that if there were firearms in the house that was raided, we would have been told within hours. Was the man who was shot armed, or was this incident another example of trigger-happy officers, an issue that remains unresolved in the investigation into the death of Jean Charles de Menezes? Is there a ‘bomb factory’, as has been speculated? When the raid last year on the Leeds home of the 7 July bombers found explosives, residents were evacuated, but all my neighbours and I have had to endure is an escort to our homes through the police cordons – the novelty of which has quickly worn off. One officer told me that the only reason the roads were closed off was to keep back the press. The decision to impose an air exclusion zone around the scene of the raid but not evacuate local people begins to look more and more like another media stunt to emphasis the seriousness of the incident, a tactic that the Metropolitan police have been notorious for in the past.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke told the media this evening that the raid was to prove or disprove intelligence they had received. That sounds as though his intelligence assessment was rather less than emphatic and yet it has led to another shooting. That is why people I have spoken to today are anxious. A combination of the press speculating on the ‘guilt’ of Muslims and potentially speculative raids by the police using draconian anti-terror laws seems like a leap backwards to the immediate aftermath of the 7 July bombings.

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