The verdict of the jury at the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan generated a huge amount of comment last week. Now that the matters have cooled somewhat, there are several points that need to be made.
In practice, the verdict was the only possible verdict at which the jury could arrive, or so it seems, given that there was evidence that Duggan was carrying a gun, and would use this gun; ergo, the policeman who shot him acted in self-defence, protecting himself from a perceived threat. It is true that the gun in question was 20 feet away, presumably thrown there by Duggan, but the police marksman made the judgement that he was in danger and acted accordingly. His judgement was reasonable, though mistaken.
We have been here before. Years ago, back in March 1988, the SAS shot three IRA members in Gibraltar. They did so because they assumed that they were about to detonate a bomb. In fact they weren’t about to detonate a bomb, and they were also unarmed; but the SAS men had reasonable grounds for supposing that their lives and those of numerous others were in danger, and so used lethal force. In this case too an inquest judged the killing to have been lawful.
Back in 1988, quite a few people were outraged that the SAS could gun people down in the street with impunity. One such was the journalist Auberon Waugh, who was no bleeding heart liberal.
It strikes me that both cases are about the same thing. But first of all it is important to state what this is not about. Mark Duggan may well have been a gangster; or he may have been an angel: but it is not important either way. The three IRA members were members of the IRA who were plotting to plant a bomb – but that is not really the point. The point is this: should the forces of law and order have the power to shoot people dead in our streets?
Put like that the question has only one answer. No one would rationally choose to live in a society where the police or the Army can shoot now and ask questions later. There are such societies, sadly, but they are not good places to live. What if we were to concede this power, on the understanding that it should only be used very sparingly? That it should be used in emergencies only? Again, no rational person would ever choose to live in a society where the police or Army had the power, even in extraordinary circumstances, to shoot people dead in the street. And why not? Because not one of us would ever want to find ourselves in Mark Duggan’s shoes, or indeed in the shoes of those three IRA members in Gibraltar.
Although the procedure of an inquest with a jury has been followed in the Duggan case, and followed correctly, the resulting verdict is indeed bewildering, bringing us up sharp against the limits of procedural justice. It must be bewildering for the family of Mark Duggan too, but it goes much further than that. It now follows that the police can shoot anyone in Great Britain, if they can later show that they had reasonable grounds for thinking that person a lethal threat. So, the reason that you and I are not shot dead by the police as we travel by taxi or whatever, is because the police do not perceive you or me to be a threat, and keep on perceiving this at all times. But the moment you are perceived as a threat, then they can, and indeed will, shoot you. This was the case with Jean-Charles de Menezes and also with Derek Bennett.
This verdict is bewildering then, because it brings capital punishment in by the back door, and it does away with trial by jury; having an inquest after you are dead is not the same thing. Practically, the verdicts might make sense, but theoretically they are deeply harmful to us all.
And yet do they make sense even at a practical level? Can we say that the shootings of Duggan and the others was the only possible course of action open to the police? We might frame this by asking whether these shootings were just. Killing in self-defence is, after all, justified by every Catholic theologian, based on the principle of proportionality. It is licit to kill someone to prevent them killing you, if there is no other way of stopping them killing you. But with the question of justice must come the question of charity. Do we in fact will the highest good of the person who is attempting to kill us? Or do we use his aggression almost as an excuse to kill the person? Did we want Mark Duggan dead, regardless of whether he was a threat or not? Or do we regret his passing? This is not asking the question about whether Duggan was a gangster or not. That question is irrelevant. The only relevant fact to consider is Mark Duggan’s humanity. He had a right to life, as do we all. Did we want him dead? Or was his death a deeply regrettable mistake?