Special Report

Prometheus, Deterred

Was the hard-line policy that resulted in the cold-blooded death of an unarmed Brazilian in London a mistake?

By 7.29.05

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It was a tragic mistake.

Jean Charles de Menezes, the man chased, tackled, and shot dead on the floor of London's Tube, was unarmed. What's worse, it looks like he wasn't part of either London bombing plot. De Menezes was a Brazilian electrician who ran when he should have stood still.

His death, and the hard-line policy behind it, have become a political problem. The cat's out of the bag that the London Police have orders to shoot suspected suicide bombers in the head. Scotland Yard officers have admitted as much ("The most effective way of dealing with someone with explosives is to shoot them in the head"). The far-left Stop the War Coalition is demonstrating outside Downing Street to change the shoot-to-kill directive. But self-described Iraq war "hawk" Tim Hames has called for the policy to be re-examined in the Times of London. And now even renowned conservative pundit Mark Steyn has expressed his discomfort with London's policy. Still, Police Commissioner Ian Blair says the policy will stand. He's right to do so.

There is a name for these counterterror operations: "Operation Kratos." Kratos, the Greek god of strength, supervised the chaining of the Titan Prometheus to a mountain as punishment for his transgression of teaching mortals the secret of fire. Restraining suicide bombers, however, requires a modified tactic.

Suicide bombers, by definition, cannot be deterred by the threat of lethal force. But perhaps they can be deterred by the prospect of failure -- of a premature death that does not include the murder of others. If they are shot and stopped before they detonate, their mission will fail. What's more, if they expect they will be shot before they can detonate themselves, they will alter their plans and bide their time until a better opportunity presents itself. That is the essence of deterrence through denial.

The grim necessity of carrying out this policy is that police, rather than aiming at the center-of-mass (as is customary for firearms training), must aim for the suicide bomber's head. This will inflict an almost certainly fatal wound, but that is an unfortunate consequence, not a recommendation for the policy. The real reason is that head shots, when they hit, are much more likely than center-of-mass shots to incapacitate instantly, and they offer less risk of triggering a bomb vest packed with unstable explosives. (See here for an illustration of the suicide vest configuration.)

There are ground-based lasers in Washington, D.C. that will warn civilian aircraft that stray into D.C. airspace, before NORAD scrambles fighters to destroy them. The principle is the same, on a larger scale: by hardening the target to the point with jets and missiles so that a suicide attack will kill the terrorist pilot before he can crash his plane, the jihadist must look elsewhere to expend his single life in a valuable way. Unfortunately the D.C. air defense, like Operation Kratos, runs the risk of a tragic mistake if an innocent civilian plane should stray over D.C.

Still, the logic is sound, and the rule is necessary, even though the notion of a shoot-to-kill policy is abhorrent to Anglo-American notions of due process. But this idea of shooting suspected bombers long predates the current war on Islamic terrorism. A similar policy was exercised against a trio of suspected IRA bombers in 1988.

In that case, Britain had received word of a car bomb plot in Gibraltar. Plainclothes SAS agents were dispatched to watch for and arrest the terrorists without allowing them to detonate their bomb.

Apparently the British military and police retain a pool of Oxbridge classicists to name their operations. The Gibraltar operation was codenamed "Flavius," after (I presume) the Roman military historian Flavius Renatus Vegetius, who once wrote, "If you want peace, prepare for war."

Operation Flavius did not go quite as planned, either. According to this account, the SAS located the terrorists' car but couldn't determine whether a bomb was inside. Meanwhile, the SAS agents tailing the saboteurs worried that they would set off the bomb remotely, but didn't know whether any or all of them were carrying remote detonators.

One of two IRA members walking together spotted the SAS tail, and made an "aggressive motion" and his partner reached into her purse. Fearing they were grabbing for guns or detonators, the SAS shot them down. When the third IRA man heard the shots and ran to assist, the team shadowing him ordered him to stop. He instead reached into his jacket pocket, and was riddled as well.

But the three terrorists were unarmed, and there was no bomb in the car. They were in Gibraltar on a bombing mission, but had not yet assembled the equipment to pull it off.

The subsequent inquiry cleared the SAS men in the shooting, but to many Brits, Operation Flavius looked like a cold-blooded plot to assassinate IRA muscle, an idea kept alive by IRA sympathizers. They even wrote songs about the dead terrorists, for example the elegiac "Ballad of Mairead Farrell." (Farrell was the female terrorist shot at Gibraltar.):

"I heard the order so loud and shrill,
Of Thatcher's voice said 'shoot to kill'."

Britain's Operation Kratos is not a brand-new policy, but one backed by sound logic and a historical precedent in Britain's last counterterrorist campaign. It withstood the backlash of Operation Flavius, and it ought to weather the storm over the tragedy of Mr. de Menezes. If shoot-to-kill for suspected bombers was good enough for the IRA under Thatcher, why should al Qaeda get a pass under Blair?

I doubt it will console the family of Mr. de Menezes to think that his death might yet prevent more deaths in the future. But if we are to find some good in this tragedy, it is that the terrorists now know that Britain, despite her politically correct rhetoric, is deadly serious about defending herself.

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