The Devil's Alternative

Better that we allow a dozen commuters to die, than kill one innocent electrician

The news that Simon Harris, the suspected murderer of Rory Blackhall, had been facing sex offence charges, has led to calls for yet another reform to the crimminal justice system. This time, it is suggested that we add people who have simply been accused of sex offenses to be added to the sex offenders register until their trial. This idea of pre-emptive justice inevitably reminds me of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, who died at Stockwell tube station on 22 July.

Then as now, the argument centres around the idea of public protection. Those in power declare that it would be crimminally negligent of them to allow innocent people to die. For them, to ‘err on the side of caution’ is to neutralise potential threats, and ask questions later. Menezes is simply a tragic casualty of war. Likewise, depriving a potentially innocent man of his civil liberties is a price worth paying, to reduce the treat of harm to the Great British Public.

However, we must admit that people will kill and abuse each other, whatever the actions taken by the State. If they are doing this in numbers that society deems unacceptable (for now, 52 people dead on the London Transport system fits that criteria, in this country at least) then the problem is not necessarily a failure of policing, but a failure of society and a failure of political decision-making. Locking people up, putting them under surveillance, or even shooting them seven times in the head (and then once in the leg) is a simplistic policy answer.

The fact that these crimes occur highlights the fact that the security services are not all-powerful. The State simply cannot protect us from everything. It is crucially the role of the State which is under scrutiny here. Not only the State’s to deal with such threats, but where the State exists on the moral plane. We must be very clear about this point, and at present the waters are muddied.

The State is not a person. It cannot make snap decisions based upon the ‘facts on the gound’. Instead, the State is a collection of people, all of us, and we have to make decisions in advance, which are then applied equally throughout the country. They are our laws, and we must stick to them. There can be no special circumstances when these are flouted. If there are, then they become unfair, unjust, and ultimately meaningless.

Many people have said this before, but often they conclude their argument at this point. However, respecting the rule of law, and our civil liberties, has some very unpalatable consequences which we must nevertheless admit to ourselves if we are to have any chance of improving our society.

Perhaps it is better for another child to be murdered, than for an innocent man to have his life ruined by false imprisonment or even a false accusation. Perhaps it is better that a dozen innocent people die on a tube train by terrorism, than it is for one innocent electrician to be wrongly murdered by the State. Whatever the choice made, someone will die. In the case of a true suicide bomber or a child murderer, the killer is an individual. But in the Menezes case, the killer was the State. It was us. There is a moral difference between allowing a death that even the police are powerless to prevent, and proactively causing the death of an innocent person.

The choice is of course a Devil’s Alternative, but when our agents made our choice for us on 22 July, we all became murderers. To absolve ourselves of this sin, we must ensure that it never happens again. Some of our laws make it harder to catch terrorists. Better that we allow innocent people to die by terrorism than to become murderers, terrorists, ourselves. Altering our laws can no longer help us win the battles against terrorists, sex offenders or indeed any other crime. We need to begin altering our society, and the way we conduct our political debate, if we are to stand any chance of winning.

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