Thursday, July 28, 2005

Are you feeling lucky Jean Charles?
Being white, middle class and from a respectable family, whatever that may mean, I grew up with a middle class relationship with the British police: I didn’t trouble them and they didn’t trouble me. The bobby walked the streets, normally alone and always unarmed, cheerfully providing directions to a particular street or local landmark when asked and one never felt remotely threatened.
No longer. Anyone who has been to a British airport in the last few years will have seen the police, always in pairs, patrolling with their automatic weapons. Some of them look about eighteen. And now they have acted. Last Friday a man from a suspect residence and wearing an unseasonably bulky jacket on a warm day – there was no more than that to arouse suspicion – was allowed to board a bus, apparently in the hope he would lead the police to others, but was challenged as soon as he transferred to the tube. When he fled in alarm, tripped and fell, he was shot an incredible five times in the head by a ‘marksman’ at very short range.
The policy that is claimed to justify this summary justice goes under the infantile title of ‘shoot to kill to protect’. It has been adopted by the Metropolitan Police on Israeli advice, not exactly the role model one might hope for, and is presumably endorsed by the Home Office. The head of the Met, who goes by the unfortunate name of Blair, has defended his officers as might a football manager praising a team still only three-nil down at half time against opponents from a higher league. ‘They are playing out of their socks’ he said and went on to warn that since the policy will not change further ‘regrettable’ mistakes could not be ruled out. In this at least he is right. It is a prediction firmly in the category of the bleeding obvious. To suggest, if this policy is to be continued, that Signor de Menezes’s death will be an isolated case would be like saying it will not rain in Manchester for a year or no pigeon will crap on Nelson’s statue before the Olympics get under way.
‘Shoot to kill to protect’ recognises the danger posed by a human bomb and the difficulty of stopping such a person from detonating it other than by total, instantaneous disablement. This means shooting the suspect in the head (ideally severing the spinal cord with the first shot). So what if Signor de Menezes had stopped when challenged? What would have convinced the police that he posed no threat? If a man who is still alive might somehow be able to set off his bomb despite being under arrest and no doubt manacled how is he to be dealt with, searched, taken to a safe place and the bomb, if any, made harmless? Would he be granted his death wish via one of those controlled explosions that seem to be needed in such numbers on these occasions?
I cannot help wondering how the rules of engagement for this policy were drawn up. Is the high command of the Met in a state of panic? Is it the puppet of a Home Office that has never been more draconian and uncaring of the normal democratic niceties? Are the officers who were instructed in the policy so in awe of their superiors that they dared not ask any questions from the point of view of those who would have to apply it, are they so gung-ho they welcomed the freedom of action it gives them or are they so supremely confident of their abilities and the training they have been given that they were unconcerned at taking on the ghastly responsibilities the policy imposes on them? How are the members of the armed units chosen? Are there any psychological or temperamental bars to membership? It is disturbing that more armed officers are now being deployed with authority to shoot in a unit that, in mostly less tense situations, already has a poor history for its decision making.
On Monday it was revealed at the inquest that Signor de Menezes had been shot not five times, but eight, seven times in the head and once in the shoulder. Whether one gun or more was used has not been revealed, though eye-witness accounts have suggested only one. One of the officers involved has been sent on holiday at public expense. He deserves it, for I do not primarily blame the officers at the fatal end of the decision making chain. It has transpired that the squad that was following Signor de Menezes made more than one radio call to a higher command for instructions. It was when the suspect entered the tube station that the authority to shoot to kill was given. Did the officer not already have that authority? If so, why was confirmation needed? If not, what was he supposed to do if a critical situation arose in which he had no time to seek it? So we have the classic situation of action being ordered by someone who was not present to assess the situation at the front, the same process that led to the charge of the Light Brigade. Is this the sort of ‘protection’ we want as we try to go about our normal business in our capital city? It will be interesting to see how this split responsibility will be resolved in the inquiry that is to follow.
As the Duke of Wellington supposedly said of his own troops, ‘I don’t know what effect they have on the enemy, but by God they frighten me’.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Ferry tales
I have an enduring childhood memory of a trip to Scotland in the days before the Firth of Forth had a road bridge next to the railway one. Returning from dinner with friends, we ran out of petrol as we approached the ferry on the north side of the firth, the car stopping about fifty yards short of the summit of the hill beyond which was the slope down to the ferry – the last of the evening. It must have been a gentle incline for my sister and I pushed the car to the summit before jumping back inside to enable my father to freewheel all the way down and on to the waiting ferry, the last car to make it.
The few minutes crossing gave us time to consider our predicament. The road on the south side was inevitably uphill again. There was no way we would get back to base, or even off the ferry, without fuel and few if any petrol stations would be open once the ferry had closed, even if we had been able to get to them.
The problem was solved by a casual conversation with another passenger. Ignoring his wife’s repeated warnings that they were themselves low on fuel (as my father had ignored my mother’s at each open petrol station we passed on the outward journey) he was so anxious to show off his newly acquired spare can, complete with retracting spout and non-drip pouring arrangement, that he sold us its contents and we drove gingerly home. It could be that trip that gave me a lifelong fondness for the idiosyncrasies and occasional dangers of ferries.
We made three trips to Ireland last year, using three different ferry services across St. George’s channel, an odd name for the stretch of water that further North becomes the Irish sea. The advantage of the ferry is that you can take your car, avoiding the preposterous charges levied by the car rental companies (it won’t be long before they lend you the car for nothing so long as you buy the insurance), and you can take your dog without all that nonsense about rabies inoculations and microchips. Our dog thinks Ireland is the best place in the world because she can swim in the sea at the bottom of my sister’s garden, surf in the breakers on Garretstown strand and get lost at low tide on Inchydony beach. We open the car window as we arrive and she jumps straight out and is gone.
But what is a ferry? The three services across St. George’s channel are a standard one (roll on, roll off and hope it doesn’t roll over), a fast twin hull powered by huge diesels that leave a spectacular double wake you could probably surf on and that I once clocked at 35 knots on my GPS, and the overnight one from Swansea. This last has its advantages, though the food is not one of them, giving you a scenic ride into Cork harbour in the morning as it passes the floodlit church at Cobh and the Titanic’s last mooring place at Queenstown, before docking conveniently at Ringaskiddy, twenty minutes from the unspoilt, if expensive, delights of Kinsale. But somehow none of these meets my sense of a real ferry.
In Scandinavia, where the coastline probably travels fifty or more miles for a direct route of ten, there are ferries of the traditional sort by the dozen. A traditional ferry is a simple device, certainly incapable of 35 knots, and offering an alternative to a longer or more dangerous journey without it. The fee does not reflect the cost of operation but is set to be marginally less than the incidental costs and time value of the alternative. It should need no booking and involve no queuing, or the time and convenience advantage is lost. The best ones have something idiosyncratic or even mildly risky about them, or an unusual system of propulsion, such as being rowed across by the owner. Many are driven by an engine that engages the links of a chain and drags the boat across, briefly raising the chain from the river bed as it passes. I pass the time speculating about other traffic having to avoid sailing too near the ferry for fear of fouling the chain, or imagine the chain breaking and the ferry drifting helplessly out to sea on the ebb tide. No doubt the health and safety people have provided for all eventualities.
To sample a real ferry, go to Ireland via Rosslare, and head for Cork, or anywhere on the south coast. About ten miles out of Rosslare divert along the south coastal route through real Irish countryside to Ballyhak where you board a flat bottomed boat that transfers you smoothly to Passage East in about five minutes, following a curved route that is different every time, adapted to the wind and tide of the moment. It runs from early morning to late evening and has a simple, irresistible old fashioned charm. When we arrived a fraction late one evening we were amazed to see it stop and reverse from some hundred yards out just to save us the wait for the next trip. Whether it actually saves time on the full Rosslare-Cork journey is debatable, probably even more so when the Waterford bypass is opened. But this is Ireland, so that’s not the point. It’s the quality of the journey that counts. There is a counterpart to this ferry at Passage West, providing a pleasanter route from Kinsale to Cobh, though whether the two are formally connected I do not know.
We should savour the delights of the earthly ferries before we take our inevitable final ride across the Styx, Charon’s toll in our hand.