(Counter-)Terrorism and the Shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes


On 22 July 2005 Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician living and working in London, was shot and killed by UK anti-terror officers as he sat on board a train at Stockwell tube station, South London. Officers fired 11 times, with 7 rounds entering Menezes’ head, 1 his shoulder and 3 missing (BBC 2007). Menezes had been followed by surveillance officers and was killed by a firearms team in a confused operation that was soon after described as a ‘mistake’ by Metropolitan Police (Met) Commissioner Ian Blair, his identity having been confused with that of Hussein Osman, a suspect in a Met terrorism investigation.

In this essay I wish to draw on the work of Nick Vaughan-Williams (2009a), which conceptualises the killing of Menezes as a form of biopolitical bordering, and critique the ‘mistake’ narrative of the Met, revealing the internal contradictions and inconsistencies of this narrative. In revealing the paradox of the ‘mistake’ narrative I wish to suggest that there is sufficient grounds to consider the shooting of Menezes as an act of state terrorism. To do this I will discuss theories of state terrorism and show how the temporal element of terrorism was very much present in the Menezes case, especially considering Ian Blair’s words: “it’s still happening out there… somebody else could get shot” (cit. Vaughan-Williams 2009a: 103).

The first section will set the groundwork for the essay by discussing the debate on state terrorism, focusing on the work of Ruth Blakeley (2009; 2010) and Richard Jackson (2008) and drawing on concepts of terror found  in Michel Foucault (1997 [1975]) and Jacques Derrida (2003). In the second section I will draw on Vaughan-Williams (2009a), Giorgio Agamben (1998 [1995]), and Jacques Derrida (2003) to suggest precisely how the shooting can be conceptualised as an act of terror. I will conclude that the shooting of Menezes should indeed be considered an act of state terrorism. In doing so I hope to deconstruct the reified identities of ‘terrorist’, ‘legitimate state’, and ‘counter-terrorist’, and consider an interaction based and anti-foundationalist approach to the study of terrorism.

Conceptualising state terrorism

In both mainstream – official (state) and media– and academic discourse, the term ‘terrorism’ has predominantly taken on a meaning which is actor-based and foundationalist. The term almost exclusively refers to the actions of non-state entities acting violently toward a political end (Jackson 2008; Blakeley 2009). This is peculiar for a number of reasons, not least of all because of the roots of the term itself can be found in a state context: ‘[I]t has become something of a cliché to note that the term ‘terror’ from which ‘terrorism’ derives was first used to describe revolutionary counter-violence by the French state’ (Jackson 2008: 380).

It is also peculiar because the term ‘terrorism’ is being predominantly used as an identity-based term and is not being problematized in mainstream, or much of academic, discourse. To accept a reified identity of ‘terrorist’ as being monolithic and appropriate to only non-state entities is to take a foundationalist approach because it has no concern for interaction. As Jackson et al have stated: ‘As a phenomenon, terrorism can only be identified according to the conceptually defined characteristics of the violence, not the … nature of the actor employing the violence’ (Jackson et al 2010: 3). I do not intend to assess the reasons for the predominance of such a foundationalist approach here, but the obscuring of the possibility of state terrorism is a key factor (c.f. Jackson 2008; Blakeley 2009 and 2010).

To move away from an actor (or identity)-based conception of terrorism, the focus turns to the actual actions which constitute terrorism. One is left with the following options: construct an action-based definition of terrorism which can apply to any actor; create a special category of state terrorism which can critique particular repressive actions of states. Blakeley seems to find the latter more appealing in her work, stating that state terrorism consists of four elements:

  1. ‘There must be a deliberate act of violence against individuals that the state has a duty to protect;
  2. ‘The act must be perpetrated by actors on behalf of or in conjunction with the state;
  3. ‘The act or threat of violence is intended to induce extreme fear in some target observers;
  4. ‘The target audience is forced to consider changing their behaviour in some way’ (Blakeley 2009: 30).

The first two elements could also describe state repression, but the third and fourth directly concern the concept of terror. State terrorism, in Blakeley’s view, focuses on the instrumentality of the act: an instrumentality that seeks, ‘to create extreme fear among an audience beyond the direct victim of the violence’ (2009: 31; emphasis added). The element of fear was very much present in the original usage of the term ‘terrorism’: the ‘Reign of Terror’ of revolutionary France. The terror of public executions during this period was not to be felt by those being executed, but by those watching. The people watching were the integral element of the terror. As Foucault has argued: ‘In the ceremonies of the public execution, the main character was the people, whose real and immediate presence was required for the performance’ (Foucault 1977 [1975]: 57). The spectacle of terror, therefore, is a spectacle of sovereign power, and the element of fear and sovereign influence over a population are essential.

‘Bare life’, ‘autoimmunity’ and the broader context of global terrorism

The shooting of Menezes has been incisively analysed by Nick Vaughan-Williams, who considers Menezes to have been lowered to a position of ‘bare life’ by the sovereign authority of the state (2009a). Vaughan-Williams is drawing on the concept of the homo sacer developed by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998 [1995]), who was developing Foucault’s concept of biopower. Agamben sought to reveal the ‘zone of indistinction’ between the juridical-institutional model of power – for example, the contemporary liberal democracy – and the biopolitical model of power – seen in its purest form in the concentration camp. To do this Agamben drew a distinction between two different forms of life: zoē, the private form of living common to all beings; and bios, the political form of living, or ‘the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group’ (Agamben 1998 [1995]: 1). He writes that, ‘The fundamental categorical pair of Western politics is not that of the friend/enemy but that of the bare life/political existence, zoē/bios, exclusion/inclusion’ (1998 [1995]: 8). Only the sovereign power has the ability to include an individual, which is manifested in the conferring of basic rights. To have been granted such rights within the polis is to be living as the bios, to have no rights or status under the sovereign is to be living as the zoē. It is the latter that is the position of the homo sacer (the sacred man), ‘who may be killed and yet not sacrificed’ (1998 [1995]: 8), who is included in the juridical order only in that he is excluded from it. The homo sacer cannot be sacrificed as he is not a part of the political community and has no rights, he can only be killed as he is excluded and debased.

Vaughan-Williams is right to view Menezes as ‘sacred’, as the homo sacer, as existing as ‘bare life’: ‘Menezes was produced as ‘bare life’: a form of life whose status is indistinct; banned from conventional law and politics and subject to exceptional practices’ (Vaughan-Williams 2009a: 105). The sovereign – here the Met – decided that Menezes existed outside the normal juridical-political order, that he was an exception, and could thus legitimately be killed. Does the act of the sovereign producing Menezes as ‘bare life’ necessarily constitute state terrorism? I do not believe that this alone constitutes state terrorism; the argument must go further.

In laying the theoretical groundwork for a conceptualisation of Menezes’ shooting as an act of state terrorism, I wish also to draw on Vaughan-Williams’ assertion that the event provided an example of Derrida’s notion of ‘autoimmunity’ (Vaughan-Williams 2009a; Derrida 2003). In the same volume of essays, Vaughan-Williams (2009a) and Dan Bulley (2009) argue that the shooting of Menezes demonstrated a state that sought to preserve its juridical-institutional basis of liberty and freedom by attacking that very liberty and freedom. To see this one must take a broader look at the context of the 7 July bombings and the wider ‘War on Terror’. Bulley states that, ‘ Britain, as a state, was not only incapable of protecting human rights on 7 July; two weeks later it was actively attacking them, attacking its own immune system’ (2009: 90).

In Derrida’s own words, ‘an autoimmunity process is that strange behaviour where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, “itself” works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its “own” immunity’ (Derrida 2003: 94). In the context of the Menezes shooting, the police were granted extraordinary powers through a shoot-to-kill order (Kratos policy; see Vaughan-Williams 2009a: 102) which was, ‘intended to protect life [but] ended up not only threatening it but also ultimately destroying it: shoot-to-kill killed precisely what it was supposed to protect’ (Vaughan-Williams 2009a: 103). Derrida also stated, ‘”Terrorist” acts try to produce psychic effects (conscious or unconscious) and symbolic or symptomatic reactions’ (Derrida 2003: 107), which can be seen in the shooting of Menezes: the shooting was a violent reaction to the violent terrorism of the 7 July bombings. A consideration of the ‘autoimmune’ process that was displayed in the shooting of Menezes compliments the assertion that Menezes was reduced to a form of ‘bare life’ by the sovereign. In the next section I wish to develop the application of Derrida and Agamben to the Menezes case in order to conceptualise the event as an act of state terrorism.

(Counter-)Terrorism, the ‘mistake’ and the temporal element: the Menezes shooting as state terrorism

The above section attempted to assess the ‘bare life’ and ‘autoimmune crisis’ elements of Vaughan-Williams’ argument regarding the shooting of Menezes; the focus was on the sovereign power and the removal of rights for an individual within the wider frame of the 7 July London bombings and the ‘War on Terror’. The focus that Vaughan-Williams takes in his essay is one which seeks to find new forms of spatio-temporal bordering at work within the sovereign territory of the state. Indeed biopolitics is a very useful theory with which to elucidate how bodies are observed and controlled by the sovereign within a territory. I wish to take the argument in a different direction, not focusing on the control of bodies as my ultimate destination, but to conceptualise the process of exteriorising (excluding/producing as ‘bare life’) an individual within the view of a wider public (the essence of the ‘zone of indistinction’ between the private and public life) as a means of terrorising that public and altering their behaviour.

It is worthwhile looking again at Blakeley’s four elements of state terrorism:

  1. ‘There must be a deliberate act of violence against individuals that the state has a duty to protect;
  2. ‘The act must be perpetrated by actors on behalf of or in conjunction with the state;
  3. ‘The act or threat of violence is intended to induce extreme fear in some target observers;
  4. ‘The target audience is forced to consider changing their behaviour in some way’ (Blakeley 2009: 30).

Thus far it seems fair to suggest that the second point is clearly present in the Menezes case, and possibly the first. The word that may create contention in the Blakeley’s first element is ‘deliberate’. To what degree can one say that there was a degree of intentionality in the killing on Menezes? There are two points to make here: Firstly, it is worth noting that while the Met did not intend to kill a Brazilian electrician, the force that was used against the ‘mistaken’ subject of their operation was still present. The officers deliberately pulled the triggers and shot Menezes nine times. The second point to make is that the Met was intentionally issued with a shoot-to-kill order, the Kratos policy, which, as the killing of Menezes shows, is an extremely dangerous policy to employ in the ‘extraordinary’ time period immediately after the 7 July bombings. The Kratos policy created the potential for the entire population to have their basic rights reduced to that of ‘bare life’ and could only have been a policy that was taken after great consideration. This problematizes the concept of intentionality, which is already complex and problematic within a vast, hierarchical, and bureaucratic juridical-institutional system of government. In this way I feel it is appropriate to say that Menezes was deliberately killed by the Met.

The third and fourth points have not been illustrated in the discussion thus far and I wish to turn to them now. The essential elements are fear, and a population changing their behaviour. Terrorism is effective when it transforms a past event – say, a series of bombs going off in a capital – into a perpetual future possibility. This leads us to reflect on Ian Blair’s words mentioned earlier: ‘it’s still happening out there… there are still officers having to make those calls as we speak… somebody else could be shot’ (cit. Vaughan-Williams 2009a: 103). There is a tension here, because the shooting was also described as a mistake, a one-off event, and yet here Blair is saying it could happen again. The paradox of the Met commissioner’s two statements holds the key to why the event was an act of state terrorism.

There is a clear link here between the shooting of Menezes – and the meaning of this event for an audience – and the condition of possibility under which it could happen again. It is this condition of possibility that justifies, I think makes necessary, the designation of the event as an act of terrorism. I believe the temporal element is key to understanding terrorism – in a sense terrorism happens as much in the future as in the present, more so perhaps. On this point Derrida, considering the 11 September attacks in the US, stated: ‘The ordeal of the event has as its tragic correlate not what is presently happening or what has happened in the past but the precursory signs of what threatens to happen. It is the future that determines the unappropriability of the event, not the present or the past’ (Derrida 2003: 96-97).

Menezes’ death was not simply an event – a ‘mistake’, as the Met would have it – but the killing became imbued, automatically and axiomatically, with the context and discourses of the bombings in London two weeks earlier and the ‘War on Terror’. The ‘mistake’ narrative attempted to obscure the connection of the shooting to this wider context by claiming that it was an aberration, when in reality, many individuals in other parts of the world were being killed in cases of ‘mistaken’ identity as a result of the ‘War on Terror’. Menezes was as much an unwilling part of the ‘War on Terror’ as were those being killed as ‘collateral damage’ in Iraq and Afghanistan. The context of the shooting is important in showing that the event created fear. Essentially the Met failed to convince that the event was a one-off and thus created fear in the population. In a different context the killing may not have created fear, but in the ‘extraordinary times’ after the 7 July bombings, and in the context of a national ‘autoimmune’ crisis, fear was created by the event.

Vaughan-Williams has empirically detailed expressions of fear by the British public, particularly Muslims, who feared for their own safety in the aftermath of Menezes’ shooting (2009a: 100). The imprecision of the surveillance team’s identification, as well as the profiling strategies of the police (see Pugliese 2006), are sufficient grounds to suggest that the act of shooting Menezes created fear, indeed terror in the audience. As stated earlier, this element of audience is also essential – Menezes was killed in a public place with witnesses and huge subsequent media coverage – just as it was during the ‘Reign of Terror’ (Foucault 1977 [1975]: 57). I therefore believe that one can fairly assert that fear was created within the wider public, satisfying Blakeley’s third point. To what degree people were forced to change their behaviour it is difficult to say, but I would suggest that simply having the collective knowledge of the shooting would have created a change in the emotional behaviour of most people traveling in the city.


In this essay I have attempted to suggest that the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes by UK anti-terror officers was an act of state terrorism that created fear in the capital of the UK. To do this I have drawn on the work of Nick Vaughan-Williams (2009a) to illustrate how the shooting degraded Menezes to a situation of ‘bare life’ in order to ‘legitimize’ his killing, and was also indicative of an ‘autoimmune’ crisis in the UK. I then critiqued the official discourse of Met Police Commissioner Ian Blair to suggest that the event necessarily created fear in the population. I also briefly drew on Foucault to consider the element of audience in terrorism and on Derrida to consider the importance of temporality. I conclude that the shooting of Menezes was indeed an act of state terrorism that, to adapt Derrida’s words regarding the 11 September attacks in the US, was, ‘part of the archaic theater of violence aimed at striking the imagination’ (Derrida 2003: 101).



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