Thursday, July 28, 2005

When You Have to Shoot First

By HAIM WATZMAN
Published: July 28, 2005

Jerusalem

IN the summer of 1984, as we manned a hilltop observation post during my first stint of reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces, I heard an awful story from a friend whom I'll call Eldad. Like the story of the police officer who killed an innocent man at the Stockwell subway station in London last week, this one had elements that got my liberal hackles up.

Western democracies are supposed to defend the individual against the power of the state. For this reason, democratic governments place strict limits on the use of force by their agents - executives, judges, members of the military and law-enforcement officers. When someone dies at the hands of one of these agents, citizens are justified in asking: Did the killer abide by the law? Were his motives pure? Was death really the only choice? All too often, the answer to these questions is no.

Eldad's story took place in Lebanon, where he and I had both served for the bulk of our regular army service, before we graduated to the reserves. He was stationed at a roadblock in southern Beirut. A car pulled up to the roadblock and three men jumped out and started spraying bullets at him and his comrades. Within a split second the Israelis were returning fire and, before they had time to even think through what was going on, two of the assailants were shot dead. The third was also on the ground, badly wounded but conscious.

"I went up to him and raised my rifle and switched it to automatic," Eldad told me. "He put up his hands as if to fend me off, or maybe beg for mercy. But I just pulled the trigger and filled his body up with bullets."

But you killed a wounded and disabled man, I objected. That's against orders. It's also immoral.

"He could still use his hands, and he might have had a grenade," Eldad said testily. "He was going to die anyway. And he deserved it."

Eldad's last two arguments were specious. He had no way of knowing how badly the man was wounded, nor was he authorized to mete out judgment.

"You would've done the same thing." He glared at me.

I didn't know whether I would have done the same thing. I half thought I wouldn't have. But what I realized at that moment was that, if I hadn't, I would have been wrong. The man had control of his hands and could have had a concealed and deadly weapon.

A terrible thing happened in London last Friday. On his way to work, Jean Charles de Menezes, a 27-year-old Brazilian electrician, was chased down by suspicious police officers. When he tripped and fell, the officers asked no questions and gave him no warning.

One of them fired eight bullets point-blank into his head and shoulder and that was that. At first sight, it was an act much more severe than Eldad's, because Eldad had been under attack and shot a man he had good reason to think was armed. Mr. Menezes had hurt no one.

On the other hand, it was an easier call. The police saw a man wearing a long coat out of place on a hot summer day jumping over a turnstile and running for a crowded subway train. He did not stop when he had been ordered to do so.

Just two weeks before the killing, four suicide bombers had blown themselves up on subway trains and buses in London. Just days before, there were all the signs of another coordinated attack - and the police had reason to believe that bombers were still at large. The long coat on a summer day was just the sort of telltale clue that the police had been told to look out for. A number of suicide bombers in recent years have used such coats to conceal the belt of explosives strapped around their waists. What's more, the police acted under express orders to shoot in the head someone they thought was about to commit a suicide bombing.

Suicide charges are usually built to be set off with the flick of the bomber's finger. The terrorist can be disabled, flat on the ground, and surrounded by heavily armed men and still blow up everything around him.

So the officer who killed Mr. Menezes did a horrible thing. But he also did the right thing. One of the tragedies of this age of suicide bombers - indeed of any war - is that the right thing to do is sometimes a horrible thing. Remember: there's an essential distinction between us and the suicide bombers. The suicide bombers perpetrate gratuitous horrors. We do terrible things only when it is necessary to prevent something even worse from happening.

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