Thursday, 25 September 2008

A Response to Nick Cohen

"De Menezes – the Left’s new excuse to beat up the police" - a response to Nick Cohen

The following is a response to the journalist Nick Cohen's article in yesterday's Evening Standard.

I’m sure there was a time when the journalist Nick Cohen understood that to describe oneself as broadly part of ‘the Left’, or even a liberal, requires at least some understanding of the unequal relationship between the power of the state and its people. The history of the modern state – from the framing of America’s constitution to the development of international human rights law – has been founded on limiting the repressive power of governments over their citizens. But faced with a theocratic rejection of universal human rights by proponents of a radical form of Islam, itself a dismissal of the Enlightenment ideals that first challenged absolute power, Cohen has worked himself into such a fury that he chooses to reject them too.

Cohen’s argument are so thread-bare and confused, but so prevalent amongst those who denigrate the search for justice for Jean Charles de Menezes, that it’s worth refuting them point by point.

He says that “when the police kill an innocent man in a dictatorship, no one dares protest”, which may come as a surprise to those who protested against the death of Steve Biko in apartheid South Africa, but in general it’s true: dictatorships have a tendency to “shoot first and ask questions later”, often justifying their actions on the basis of national security and condemning and persecuting citizens who protest as ‘terrorist sympathisers’. Presumably Cohen believes that Brazil is not a dictatorship, for he acknowledges that in cities like Rio, “there are protests aplenty about police violence but they have scant effect on men who are little more than murderers in uniform.” But the subtext of his argument is clear enough: because the Rio police kill three people every day, we shouldn’t make such a fuss about the killing of one man in London.

Exactly how many people need to die at the hands of the police in a liberal democracy before it becomes ‘a national scandal’ is less clear. Perhaps there’s a mathematical formula or some graphs that Cohen knows about and we don’t. Or perhaps (and here Cohen’s logic becomes even more confused) every death is a disgrace, for “we don't always realise it but we are lucky to live in a country that takes breaches of its rules so seriously.”

What Cohen fails to acknowledge is that the level of anger about the killing of an innocent individual by the state has particular national characteristics and a death becomes a scandal precisely because of its impact on others. In the UK, routine arming o the police is generally resisted by the public – even the police themselves oppose it. It’s not true, however, that deaths in police custody are exceptionally rare, for in truth, whilst deceitfully playing the numbers-game in comparing Britain with Brazil may encourage Cohen to feel lucky, we don’t live in a country that takes breaches of its rules as seriously as it should. Since 1993, there have been 674 recorded deaths in police custody. Forty six people have been shot dead by police since 1990. There have been fifteen inquest verdicts of ‘unlawful killing’ by police officers – and no convictions by the courts.

Most bereaved families would argue that these deaths (never mind the many deaths in other countries) have been largely ignored. It's the idea that, suddenly, anyone who has brown skin or looks like a Muslim or happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, is at an increased risk of being gunned down by those charged with protecting the public, and that this might actually be acceptable at a time when people already face the terrifying threat of morbidly zealous fanatics with rucksack bombs, that is precisely the reason why Jean Charles de Menezes’ death has particularly horrified so many when other deaths have not.

Cohen prefers to see other motives, but the example he chooses in order to make a sweeping generalisation about the “partisans in the vicious arguments over London's policing” is frankly bizarre. His anecdote about a radio producer, asking for a comment that the Met is as much a threat to the lives of Londoners as radical Islam, says more about the nature of Cohen’s own profession and its eagerness to sensationalise and simplify, traits that Cohen is himself a master of and that are described in forensic detail in fellow Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News. Nevertheless, with all the obsession of a conspiracy theorist, Cohen sees this as evidence, where no evidence exists, that thousands have a “psychological need to deny the horrors of the world” for daring to protest (something no-one in a dictatorship has the courage to do, but clearly no-one anywhere, in Cohen's view, should ever consider).

Finally, Cohen then psychologically projects his own prejudices onto “the very people who are shouting loudest about the death of poor Mr de Menezes” by suggesting that we would be the first to denounce the police if a terrorist detonated a bomb on the London Underground. Somehow, I imagine that no-one would be issuing louder denunciations than Nick Cohen himself in such circumstances. The rest of us would probably recognise that fault for a bombing would lie squarely with the bombers, that sometimes it is impossible to stop those who are really determined to murder, but that questions about the quality of police intelligence, how it is acted upon and what steps were taken to stop a suspect from entering a Tube station are legitimate tests of the accountability of public servants – just as they are in the case of the death of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, a scientist and a giant of the Enlightenment that theocracy stands opposed to, said that “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I wonder what he would have made of someone who says, “I don't want to defend the Met's mistakes but it is blindingly obvious that when the police think they are confronting suicide bombers they will shoot first and ask questions later.”

Franklin also advised that that we should ”use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly." More in hope than expectation, I'd suggest that at some point soon, Nick Cohen would do well to follow this wisest of counsel.

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