President's Column: A response to terrorism

Vol. 48, No. 11 | NZPA | Tue December 1st, 2015

Last month, 130 people were murdered by bombs and bullets in Paris. No doubt there were many other murders in Paris during that month, as there would have been in every other city in the world.

The difference is in the response.

In the Paris case, the authorities went straight to the punishment, bombing the part of Syria where the attackers came, or were deployed, from.

In the thousands of other “normal” murders, a different approach is demanded.

Police begin an investigation, building it from the ground up. Acting within strictly prescribed evidential and procedural rules, they reconstruct what has occurred and attempt to identify those responsible.

As the case grows, the assistance of other agencies is sought, sometimes transnational organisations, until the offenders are identified.

When all the facts are known, decisions are made as to the appropriate response. The courts do that. It’s called the rule of law and, ponderous though it can be, it’s better than the jungle law it replaces.

Can you imagine police heading off to bomb or burn down the local gang pad after a gang hit? Imagine the outcry and condemnation.

Public responses aren’t consistent, however. Last month in New Zealand, selective video footage of two pretty normal police arrests requiring violent offenders to be physically restrained were published on social media and subsequently reported in the mainstream media. There was outrage that police officers would apparently use force. These are the same news outlets who happily reported the punitive bombing raids and shooting of suspects for the Paris killings.

As soon as the “T” word is mentioned, normal rules of engagement go out the window. That’s because terror-instigated murder causes considerably more political damage and angst than everyday killings.

However, a murder is a murder – the unlawful killing of one human by another. If we treated every murder the same, building a case from the ground up, and then did what was necessary to bring the guilty to justice, including those who organised and inspired the crimes, we might have prevented the political over-reaction that led to the irrational invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 murders in New York, which has led to the current mess in the Middle East.

We should have faith in our current systems so that by the time politicians have to become involved, it’s to help an investigation, not to go straight to the punishment.

If they are impatient for the results, then perhaps civil police need more powers and freedom to do their jobs on a day-to-day basis.

As police, we are an integral part of keeping society safe. Bypassing our input weakens the very society that politicians are elected to protect.

Good investigation is about building a case from the bottom up, rather than trying to work backwards, and giving investigators all the tools they need to do the job.

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