For all the Asian and Arab families I know, this blast-to-kill policy is more scary than the bombs... it isn't comforting for Muslims to know that the shoot-to-kill trick was learned from Israeli marksmen... I have a son... a barrister... much darker than I am, with proud eyes and a temper. I am a wreck, worrying ceaselessly about what could happen to him in the present volatile climate... I and most other Asian parents now have to accept this reality. It is in the national interest... I can even persuade myself that trained armed officers can, under extreme circumstances, fire at legs or arms. But we do not accept that even in this emergency, our men and boys could find themselves shot dead because of confused intelligence. Or that every time they step out, we must say our final goodbyes... Ian Blair says such mistakes could happen again. If so, the policy must be withdrawn immediately - for the sake of the police as well as society. London is not Gaza.In a piece (not online) in Wednesday's Evening Standard, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's concern about what she calls the 'blast-to-kill' policy of the Metropolitan Police is focused on its threat to young Muslim men, and on the way in which it has turned her into a ceaselessly worrying wreck. She thinks that if the police can't provide a guarantee that there will be no further mistakes, the policy should be abandoned. That is of course a call for the policy to be abandoned, since no human activity can be guaranteed to be free of mistakes. But the rationale for the policy is that it may save many lives, if it prevents a suicide bomber from triggering an explosion. So what Alibhai-Brown is claiming is that the particular threat to Muslim men is more important than the greater, but more generalized, threat to all of us (including, of course, to Muslims).
Leave aside the self-pity which permeates this piece of writing, at a time when the rest of us may also have cause to feel worried on behalf of our innocent children, though right now many of us are less worried about the activities of the police (kill rate: 1) than about those whose murderous activities they are trying to forestall (kill rate: 52). And leave aside the snide and gratuitous sideswipe at Israel, which has the added demerit of falsehood, since Israel almost never kills suicide bombers in the course of arrest; furthermore its need to stop such people getting through is not a matter of 'tricks', as Alibhai-Brown so sneeringly says, but rather a matter of saving innocent children (just as innocent as her son) from being torn apart on the streets of Tel Aviv or Haifa. Of course, every care does need to be taken, by the police and others, to avoid mistaken killings during arrest, and Britain might in fact have something to learn from Israel here, if we can reject demonizing myths about how the Israeli police cope with the thousands of attacks on civilians which they have had to face.
The really interesting thing about the Alibhai-Brown piece lies elsewhere: in it, and in the dismissive response it provokes in some of us, we can see a deep clash, at some subterranean level, of great tectonic plates in our moral thinking. On the one hand, there is the very powerful combination of multiculturalism and the discourse of human rights, which has dominated so much of our thinking about how we as individuals, and also the state, should treat members of the various groupings which make up a diverse society like our own. And, on the other hand, there are the needs and demands of the whole of a liberal-democratic society, including its need to be protected from those who seek to undermine or destroy it. On the one hand, the insistence on protecting the individual's rights regardless of the common good; on the other hand, the desire to protect all of us from deadly threats.
The ideology of multiculturalism, after a long period of widespread acceptance, is currently coming under attack: its claim that all cultures must be given equal respect, and that any deviation from this amounts to victimization, may have led us seriously to underestimate the need for social cohesion. In any case, whether or not our present lethal lack of cohesion can be attributed to the rise of multiculturalism, the moral relativism implicit in that view always made it a dubious position to hold. But the discourse of human rights is far better founded, and provides us, partly because it is so deeply anti-relativist, with the moral apparatus for protecting everyone from oppression, no matter what culture they are part of or what polity they live under. It can do this because the very idea of individual human rights is the idea of a block on the demands of the general good; an insistence that individuals have claims and interests that mustn't be overridden by the needs of society.
Human rights are an indispensable part of a morally decent society (though the eager embracing of victimhood is not, and there's no doubt that the discourse of human rights has, along with multiculturalism, encouraged many to regard the status of victim of rights-violation as the most attractive one going, and hence to reach for it at the slightest provocation). But protection from those whose direct intention is to kill the innocent is also indispensable. Such protection may require us to be more ready to accept defensive policies which constrain, or in emergency infringe, individual rights than we've hitherto been accustomed to. In the issues raised by Alibhai-Brown's insistence that Muslim worry about the danger from the police to young Muslim men must take precedence over worries about the danger to all of us from suicide bombers, we can see the moral substratum supporting our ways of thinking about social relations beginning to shift. The demand that we reject policies which might disadvantage members of one group more than another is coming up against the requirement that within broad moral constraints we should do what is most effective in preventing murderous attacks on all of us.
It will be interesting to see which of these powerful moral concerns wins out, and what the moral landscape looks like thereafter. It's unlikely to be an improvement on the level of freedom and rights-protection we could afford in the past - never fully respected, of course, but luxurious nonetheless compared to many less fortunate political regimes. That, too, will be a casualty of the bombings. (Eve Garrard)