The fatal shooting of an innocent man mistaken for a terrorist in the wake of last month's London bombings should serve as a caution against draconian police powers assumed by governments in emergency situations.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that police were justified in carrying out special "shoot to kill" orders formulated to protect against suicide bombers when they pumped seven bullets into Jean Charles de Menezes on a London subway car on July 22.
That was the day after terrorists failed to set off four bombs in the London subway system and just two weeks after bombers killed 52 people in similar attacks. The city was in turmoil.
Now, however, it turns out that not only was Mr. de Menezes not a danger to anyone but British police put out a false story to cover a botched anti-terrorist operation.
That story, circulated around the world, had Mr. de Menezes, clad in a thick coat that suggested a bomb hidden underneath, fleeing officers into the subway, vaulting a ticket turnstile, and ignoring demands to stop.
The truth, as finally admitted last week by Scotland Yard, was that Mr. de Menezes, a Brazilian-born electrician who lived in the same apartment building as a suspected bomber, was not acting suspiciously, had not run from police, and was wearing a light denim jacket that could not have concealed a bomb.
No one heard an order for him to stop, and he had been restrained by at least one officer when others fired seven bullets into his head in front of horrified riders.
In short, the police made a horrible mistake, which those on the scene realized almost immediately. But instead of owning up, authorities didn't admit the error publicly until the following day and corrected the original account of what happened only after internal documents leaked to the news media weeks later.
As the Times of London reported, the fatal series of events was launched when an officer watching the suspected terrorist's apartment took a break to, in his words, "relieve myself," and thus failed to turn on his video camera in time for a clear identification as a man left the building.
As a result, officers had no clue that it was Mr. de Menezes, who was lighter-skinned than the Asian terrorist suspect they were pursuing.
Why police killed the man in cold blood without making an effort to identify him still has not been explained fully, but it is the subject of an investigation by Britain's Independent Police Complaints Commission.
Because of the turmoil surrounding the subway bombings, there will be those who will say the authorities were justified in shooting first and asking questions later. But such macho tactics only work with fail-safe precision in the movies. In the real world, people make mistakes.
Jean Charles de Menezes was the victim of a foolish government policy carried out to a tragic conclusion, but no one is the safer for it. His family, friends, and the whole British people have a right to demand an answer why.
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