The de Menezes affair

The truth doesn’t catch up with the propaganda.

One risk of being a news junkie and a blogger is that your sense of what is, and isn’t, still news to normal folks gets distorted.

I’m aware of not blogging about lots of important stories — the Ohio coin scandal, for example, which has been bubbling for months but was mentioned here only yesterday — simply because I don’t have anything fresh to add: fresh, that is, to me, and to other obsessive-compulsive blog-and-newspaper readers. But of course most of you, my loyal readers, lead much more sane and balanced lives than I, and therefore probably hadn’t heard of those millions of dollars in missing coins, or the other stories I decided I had nothing fresh to say about.

This point was driven home to me today when a reader who is also an old friend, and who is certainly well above the median in current-events awareness among academics, said something about “Brazilians wearing overcoats in London summers.”

It turns out that, for him, the truth about the de Menezes case — that the deceased wasn’t wearing a heavy coat, didn’t jump the turnstile, had never been ordered to stop by police, ran only to catch his train, and had already been subdued, unresisting, by one officer when another fired seven shots into his head — hadn’t caught up with the falsehoods originally put out by Scotland Yard. Nor, of course, had he heard about the nine-day delay in starting the investigation.

My initial reaction to the killing was sadness rather than outrage. On the facts as presented, it seemed that the police might have acted rationally, though obviously in error. And I didn’t — and still don’t — have a clear set of beliefs about what rules of engagement ought to be in force when police confront potential mass-transit bombers. So while I didn’t want to join the “served him right, too” chorus, I also lacked any impulse to jump on my civil liberties/police brutality soapbox.

As a result, I said nothing, which of course saved me from the embarrassment of assessing a set of circumstances that didn’t in fact obtain. The fact that the police operation in question was badly bungled (and not merely unfortunate) and that the Scotland Yard Commissioner tried to order it covered up of course provide valid evidence for the side of the argument that insists that the police, as the instruments of lawful domestic violence, need to be kept under very tight control. But that evidence, as striking as it is, isn’t conclusive, any more than the the next bombing will provide conclusive evidence that the rules of engagement are too restrictive.

Still, for whatever the evidence is worth, there it is, and a quick Google for “Menezes” suggests that while the rest of the Anglosphere is paying attention to this, the U.S. media, other than Bloomberg, have decided to give it a miss, and to leave their readers with the disinformation about a man in a suspiciously warm coat who jumped the turnstile, ignored a police order to stop, and was shot in the head as the only way of preventing the bomber he might have been from detonating the explosives he might have been carrying.

My earlier silence renders my responsibility to clear matters up less than that of the mass media (and bloggers) who initially trumpeted the false story, but then I like to imagine that my ethics are better than theirs. So, for the two or three of you who might have missed the correction, here it is.

Update A reader tells me that NBC covered the story tonight. Avedon Carol, who has been all over the story, points to this puzzling news item. It seems that the Commissioner, Ian Blair, believed after the killing that de Menezes had been a suicide bomber. But wouldn’t a suicide bomber have been packing explosives under his nonexistent overcoat? I can imagine believing afterwards that a terrible mistake had been made in good faith; but how was it possible to believe that a mistake hadn’t been made?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: