It's rather early to speculate on the most recent London bombings, although that doesn't stop the mainstream media doing so. But there are bound to be some questions about the shooting of a suspect at a tube station this morning.
If eyewitnesses are correct, the man was on the ground and not holding a weapon when police fired several shots into him. My concern is not from sympathy for suicide bombers, if that's what he was (let's hope to God that he was), but because it would surely have been of much greater value to the police to capture him alive.
As I write, the police have said that the dead man was not one of the four suspects they were hunting for the bombings. This is rather worrying.
Remember the innocent man yesterday who we saw lying on the pavement in Whitehall, surrounded by armed police? And remember the case of Stephen Waldorf many years ago who was shot by police while innocently driving through London in a case of mistaken identity? Or, more recently, the Scotsman carrying a table leg shot dead because police thought he was an Irishman carrying a gun?
It has also just emerged that the driver of the tube train on which the man was shot dead had left his cab and run into the tunnel for safety. The police decided he was a suspect, chased him and put a gun to his head.
One can understand the police being jittery in the present situation. But we need to remember the IRA terrorism of the seventies and eighties when innocent people rotted in jail for twenty or more years. That would be less likely today, now that we have the Police and Criminal Evidence Act and other safeguards. But we know from the many miscarriages of justice over the years how easy it is for a police force under pressure to pick up the wrong people. Today, with hundreds of armed police swarming around London there's a real possibility that an innocent person will be shot. It may have already happened. Let's hope not. And if it does happen, there will be those who will shrug and say it's a price worth paying. So long as it's not them or one of their family, presumably.
At least with this week's attacks there has been less self-congratulation about the stoicism of the British and Londoners. The media reported the hysteria and panic when people thought there was a bomb on their train and we were shown the piles of shoes and possessions that fleeing passengers left behind. This is a good thing. In some situations panic is a normal, natural and potentially life-saving response. If you think you are close to a bomb, running like hell is the only sensible response. Whether shouting 'women and children first' is sexist and ageist I'll leave others to judge.
The 'fight or flight' response is hard-wired within us for sound evolutionary reasons. And since you can't fight with a rucksack full of high explosive, flight is the only option.
The physiological changes that are triggered by the 'fight or flight' response are quite remarkable. Chemicals such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are pumped into the bloodstream. The respiratory rate increases. Blood is re-directed from the digestive tract to the muscles and limbs. The immune system goes to Red Alert. The pain threshold is raised. The pupils dilate. Peripheral vision improves dramatically so you can almost see behind your back.
Given this complex, sophisticated chemical and physiological response that has evolved for our own safety, isn't it a bit silly to say 'come on, chaps, we're British. Stiff upper lip and all that, don't you know?'
Hugh Lloyd: Are you a doctor?
Tony Hancock: No.....I never bothered.
- from The Blood Donor