Here is a little story from my youth. Sorry about the length. It does get topical by the end. Honest.
I had arranged to meet an old college friend on the South Bank, outside the NFT. There was a bit of a cock-up over the time. I thought we were meeting at 6 and he thought we were meeting at 7. Not only that but I turned up a little earlier than 6 and he turned up a little later than 7.
I realised the mistake when I got there so occupied my time having a beer and doing the crossword in the paper getting up for a wander around every now and then, browsing the second-hand book stalls under the bridge and generally idling around.
When my friend turned up we headed for the big pub opposite Waterloo station, taking a shortcut through the old bullring – where the IMAX cinema is now.
When we were right in the middle of that open space a couple of cars drove into that pedestrian space at great speed, and lots of men appeared as if from nowhere, running towards us and shouting.
It was a bit of a shock. It turned out that there had been a lot of car and bike thefts in the area and the police had been doing some sort of stake-out. Because I had been hanging around for an hour they had obviously been watching me and thought I was suspicious. They had both of us separately explain what we were doing there and eventually decided we were just a pair of early 20′s blokes meeting up for a beer – which we really needed after that.
If I had been a car or bike thief looking for the next thing to steal, I might have had a guilty conscience and been half-expecting police to surprise me at any time, but we were in the middle of a conversation, catching up on gossip and news, oblivious to anything else. Afterwards I felt a bit shakey when I thought that someone had been observing me minutely for up to an hour, perhaps through telephoto lenses, and taking photos. In a way I felt that my privacy had been invaded. It was like being stalked.
The relevance of all this reminiscing is that in that moment of shock I knew the men were shouting, but did not hear what they were shouting. If not for the fact they had very obviously got us surrounded perhaps I would have bolted as a reflex action. In moments like that you can either get rooted to the spot like a rabbit in headlights or just instinctively run.
So how did this Brazilian chap feel last week? If he was pre-occupied with getting to work while he was running late, or just thinking about what he was going to do that night and was suddenly faced with people shouting and running towards him I can totally understand how he might run.
Even if the police did shout a warning, I know from experience that the words don’t necessarily get through. Trying to put the blame onto him just for reacting naturally is, in my mind, the police just adding insult to injury. Until you have been in that situation you do not know how you will react, and in that split second he is not likely to have thought about the prevailing paranoia.
The other consideration is that I was reflecting on how I felt knowing I had been watched and followed. How much worse is it for anyone who also lives in that block of flats and who left their home Friday morning? The police have said that Mr de Menezes was not the only ‘suspect’ they followed that morning. I felt bad having been stalked by the local car theft team – what must it be like to now realise that you might have been followed for hours by armed police who are prepared to shoot to kill? I would be wondering what I might have done that could look dangerous.
If I lived in that block of flats I would probably be in therapy now.
It is so easy for people who read nothing other than Andy McNab, Tom Clancey and the Daily Mail to say that there was, what we used to call in the 80s, ‘contributory negligence’ but would their unconcious actions always lend themselves to a charitable interpretation if viewed by an on-the-edge invisible watcher?
I think Friday’s incident is something which could have happened to anyone, no matter how much they insist otherwise, and I find that prospect so much more worrying than the chance of being caught in a bomb blast – at least that is indiscriminate and impersonal, and leaves some survivors.