Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Report in Black and White

On the morning of July 22nd, Jean Charles de Menezes left his flat to repair a broken fire alarm. The electrician never made it to his job. He was stopped by men who thought they were doing theirs.

de Menezes holds tenaciously to my consciousness. His death — of all last year's pointless deaths both farther and nearer to me — has inspired two book works. The vaporizing heads temporarily added to this blog's banner started as his. And I've assembled other images for a mock police report on the incident I've yet to write.

Soon after he died on the floor of that train, I saw the world divided anew: Those who believe we are all Brazilian electricians, and those who find the very notion insulting and ridiculous.
The previous day's shocking bombings had put all London on high alert, but de Menezes headed off to work as normal on public transit. Everything that happened afterward unfolded from a sad compounding of coincidences. He lived in the same block of flats as one suspect in the bombings. The policeman watching his building stepped away to take a leak just before de Menezes left, making identification uncertain. His route to the underground station, via connecting bus, may have heightened suspicions and anxiety, and forced surveillance to be handed off to different teams, further confusing communications.

Although life for de Menezes was proceeding as normal, events sped up for those following him. Those who thought he may be on his way to another attack.

As he moved toward the station, he was transformed from a man going to work to a terrorist, and though later accounts tried to cast suspicion on his actions, this transformation actually occurred in the minds of witnesses and the people pursuing him.

You can read some of the concurrent conjecture here and here, as people post-dated recollections to make them fit a slowed-down reality.

In any crisis, real or perceived, we are programmed to see the world's greys in black and white. We can't change this wiring, and why should we? Survival demands it.

Yet if we see the world this way all the time, we are reacting, not learning. We are quick sorting people and things, preparing to fight or flee, neither of which allows community to take shape.

Perhaps de Menezes was doomed the moment the phone rang in his building where immigrants lived, when he walked unknowing into a world of black and white. Perhaps his ghost stays with me, to remind me to speak up for the greys. Because otherwise, someday, somewhere, each of us will walk a street where we are the Belgian electrician.

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