Opinions

London's war on backpacks

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Waking up to the jarring blare of your alarm clock, you look over and realize you're late. No time for coffee, barely enough time to throw on yesterday's clothes and run out the door. You catch the 8:05 am bus within seconds and start to think you may make it to work on time, just a short train ride left to go. You exit the bus and start towards the tube. Suddenly there's shouting on your left, you look over in time to see two men pulling guns on you. No time to think, you rush the train station, leaping the turnstile in your panic to escape. Moments later you're thrown to the ground, brutally shot eight times from behind. You die on your commute to work, a victim of the war on terror.

The terrible thing about this scenario isn't that it happened last week in London, but that it's being defended as justifiable in the wake of recent terrorist acts in Britain and Egypt. The policy of killing suspected suicide bombers to prevent them from detonating their deadly cargo seems justifiable, if harsh, at first glance. But it isn't for one simple reason: humanity is inherently fallible. The only constant in human history is that given the chance to bungle things up, we will.

It's been argued by proponents of the 'shoot-to-kill' policy that the death of Jean Charles de Menezes, the 27 year-old Brazilian immigrant executed by London anti-terrorist police, was an unfortunate but necessary casualty in a city recently plagued by terrorism. Although a number of witness testimonies have disputed officer's claims they warned Menezes before drawing their weapons and pursuing him into the tube station, let's assume police did in fact identify themselves before Menezes bolted. Is it arguable that fleeing from police is punishable by death? Even though the officers' actions were likely done out of a sincere wish to prevent further attacks, there is no guarantee that shooting suspects will stop anything.

No matter what security policies are adopted, some attacks will succeed, others will fail. Adopting policies as irresponsible as 'shoot-to-kill' undermines the fundamental principles western societies claim to be founded upon: Menezes was offered no lawyer, no trial, no appeal whatsoever.

Due process forms the backbone of democratic legal systems because a thousand things can cloud facts, making it impossible to pass a fair sentence--in many cases that's exactly what happens. Just look at the number of wrongful imprisonment cases cropping up each year thanks largely to the development of DNA identification. The legal system is only as effective as the people who run it.

Eliminating this imperfect system in favour of gun barrel justice condemns others as innocent as Menezes to similar fates. Likewise, the argument that terrorist acts fall outside the jurisdiction of criminal law and are instead acts of war is flawed. War requires a tangible enemy, and 'terrorism' is still a subjective idea. Terrorist acts are carried out by small, localized cells of individuals, in a word: criminals.

When it's decided that any citizen within society is a potential enemy of the state, it is inev- itable that every citizen can be marked as one--whether guilty or not. Shifting the burden of proof from the accuser to the accused is understandable in a fascist state, but never in a country that claims to hold truth, justice, and equality as its highest ideals.

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