The cold calculus of fighting terrorism

Let’s revisit the case of the Brazilian man killed by police on a London subway last night, and apply a little brutal logic to the situation.

Reduced to its simplest factors, there are two possibilities for the suspect — he is a bomber, or he is not a bomber — and two options for the police — shoot, or do not shoot.

First, though, let’s look at the “shoot” option. “Shooting for the body” is a bad idea for a suspected suicide bomber. The body is where the bomb would be, and could set it off. “Shooting to wound” is also a bad idea. The chances of missing are much greater, and a wounded terrorist can still set off the bomb. Shooting to kill, with the head as the target, is the best option.

Now, with two possibilities and two reactions, we have four possible scenarios to consider:

1) The suspect is a bomber, and the police kill him. In this scenario, the innocents killed are zero, and the guilty killed is one — a good outcome.

2) The suspect is a bomber, and the police do not shoot. This results in numerous innocents killed, as well as one guilty person. This is a bad outcome.

3) The suspect is not a bomber, and the police do not shoot. No one is killed.

4) The suspect is not a bomber, and the police kill him. One innocent is killed.

Now, obviously, the third scenario is the ideal one — no one is killed. But this overlooks a single key element — the police have absolutely no control over the first factor. They cannot affect whether or not the suspect is a bomber or not.

What they can do, though, is “play the odds” and use their best judgment on whether or not the suspect is a terrorist. They can look at his clothing, his behavior, his conduct, his general mien and use their best professional opinion on whether he is a terrorist or a harried commuter.

This is what used to be known as “good policework,” but is now known as “profiling.”

That’s exactly what happened in London last week. They played the odds, ran the numbers, and chose in instants whether they would risk one dead innocent or countless dead and injured innocents — and they shot him.

One innocent man is dead, but the message is clear: the police are ready and willing to kill to stop terrorists. And the fact that it took over two weeks for an innocent (or anyone, for that matter) to pass the threshold of “reasonable certainty” and merit shooting gives me faith in the police.

The London police are not crazed, trigger-happy psychos who are gunning down everyone with dark skin who “looks wrong.” They are very carefully evaluating and watching and studying people, and in the tens of thousands they’ve watched, only one person pushed enough buttons to justify their shooting him dead.

As I said before, my heart goes out to Mr. de Menezes’ family. But from all I’ve heard, the he was utterly wrong in how he acted, and the police were utterly right in how they acted. If there’s anyone to blame for this, it’s the terrorists who decided that they will flout the conventions of civilization and embrace such barbaric tactics as the suicide bomber against innocents.

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