In the aftermath of hysterical US press reports of the London suicide bombings and the follow-up bombing attempts, Americans are frightened that “it could happen here.” But that’s been the case since September 11th, and the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and US government support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine makes suicide bombing attacks on US soil more likely every day. But there are other things besides suicide bombings that we should be afraid of. Most of all, we should fear the increasing spread of Abu Ghraib-style tactics all over the world.
Open the newspaper on any given Sunday morning and you can read appalling stories. London police officials, after staking out an apartment complex where one of the London bombers had lived, spotted a dark-skinned man in a heavy coat emerging from the building. They tailed him to the subway and attempted to stop him as he entered the station. The plainclothes cops drew their weapons and begin to chase the guy, who ran frantically to get away from several anonymous, gun-slinging pursuers. The man got onto a full train, hoping that the armed madmen wouldn’t risk attacking him in the middle of a crowd of people. But three of the cops tackled him on the floor of the train. Not happy with simply subduing him, one of the undercover cops emptied five bullets into the man’s head and torso, murdering Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old Brazilian who, it turns out, had absolutely nothing to do with any of the suicide bombers, was not armed or wired with explosives, and whose only crime was that he was a dark-skinned man from Brazil who found 70-degree weather in July chilly enough to need a warm coat.
Menezes was a victim of post-September 11th police planning that, in the name of security, throws individual civil and privacy rights out the window. The undercover London police who tackled and shot him belonged to a special armed unit with powers to track and summarily execute suspected suicide bombers. Code-named “Operation Kratos,” the new paramilitary units are modeled on Israeli military tactics used against Palestinian suicide bombers. Far from feeling more secure, the train passengers that witnessed Menezes’ execution spoke on British TV in shocked and angry tones, very clearly feeling that a serious crime had been committed. A London police spokesman did apologize for the incident, saying, “For somebody to lose their life in such circumstances is a tragedy.”
Not a tragedy, no. It’s a travesty. The Menezes incident proves that Palestinians have a legitimate complaint when they claim that the Israeli authorities treat them like they’re not human. Unfortunately, the US press has buried the Menezes story in favor of other fare, including a far-fetched attempt to link the London bombings to a “terrorist cell” in the US. The hot new story is the absurd notion that one of the London bombing “suspects”–not one of the actual suicide bombers, of course, but someone who may have met them at some unspecified time and place–may have ties to James Ujaama, the former Seattle resident who spent a few months in prison for attempting to set up an “Ultimate Jihad” vacation camp in Eastern Oregon. Unfortunately, the US press never tires of writing about Ujaama, even though we’ve long since grown weary of reading about him. If Ujaama was so dangerous, why is he already out of prison?
Meanwhile, the New York Police Department is treating New York residents like sheep, making them line up for random searches of bags, purses, backpacks, and briefcases in subway stations. Aside from the unconstitutionality of random searches and the potential for rampant racial profiling, the searches are absolutely ineffective as a security measure. Only one in five bags are searched; any suicide bomber can do the math and realize that he or she has an 80% chance of successfully avoiding detection. And what’s to stop a suicide bomber from carrying the explosives strapped to her body or stuffed in his shoe? What’s next, pat-downs and strip searches before anyone can board a city bus?
Even the timing of these random searches is a sign of the hysteria that’s prompted them. No such measures were instituted after the Madrid train bombings, which killed many more people than the London bombings. In recent months, bombs that exploded at Turkish vacation resorts, where westerners were among the many dead, didn’t provoke a similar response from the NYPD. Even the recent massive bombings in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, would not have prompted this casual violation of New Yorkers’ privacy rights.
The searches are a ruse to hide the fact that New York City officials haven’t done enough to institute more reasonable, albeit more expensive, security measures that would be useful not just in a terrorist attack, but in the event of an accident or equipment breakdown, or even useful in preventing common crime on the subways. Two years ago, the Metropolitan Transit Authority budgeted $600 million for security upgrades, but so far, only five percent of that money has been spent. On the day the searches were instituted, subway system employees called a press conference to tell the public that they’ve been given no training for emergency situations of any kind, and to demand that the city make this a top priority.
Nor is New York alone in this intransigence. Nearly four years after September 11th, most municipalities around the nation admit that they’re lacking the funds to make the basic, reasonable security upgrades that the federal government has required them to do.
Instead of reasoned security measures and a thoughtful debate over the role that Britain and the US are playing in the Middle East, we get knee-jerk, after the fact, Abu Ghraib-style tactics. The day of the second, failed bombing attacks in London, members of the US House of Representatives, fresh from watching anxiety-provoking US media coverage of the bombings, voted 257-171 to extend the USA PATRIOT Act’s spying provisions indefinitely. Only a few weeks ago, administration critics were pushing for Congress to let the act lapse because of serious problems with the constitutionality of many of its clauses. With a Republican controlled Congress, we can surely expect more expansion of government spying at the expense of our privacy rights and, eventually, our civil rights, too.
Jean Charles de Menezes might have been shot in London, but the laws that allowed his extrajudicial execution are coming soon to your neighborhood.