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Gary Younge
No tails or tridents

In a clear indication of how terrorism not only destroys bodies but contaminates perceptions, fellow travellers say they saw an "Asian man" with "a bomb belt and wires coming out". What they actually saw was a young Brazilian in a Puffa jacket. The police saw a threat. To them De Menezes looked like another "clean skin" (a perpetrator with no history of previous terrorist involvement or affiliation) on the run and possibly about to act. Having cornered him and pinned him to the ground they pumped five bullets into his head at close range.

In a world where every brown skin is little more than a "clean-skin" waiting to happen, stop and search will inevitably become stop and shoot. The dominant mood that we are better safe than sorry is understandable. But after Friday's incident we are left with one man dead, nobody safe and everybody sorry. If there's one thing we've learned over the past two years, it's that a pre-emptive strike with no evidence causes more problems than it solves.

De Menezes's killing came the day after the police presented Tony Blair with a shopping list of new measures they say they need to tackle terrorism. As though the plea not to allow terrorists to change our way of life does not apply to the authorities, they want to increase the amount of time they can detain a suspect without charge from 14 days to three months. Given that they already have the option of shooting unarmed, innocent people dead in the underground, the police clearly have more power than they can responsibly handle. But De Menezes's death does not make the case against giving police extra anti-terrorist powers - it simply illustrates it.

Anti-terrorist legislation has a proven record of catching just about anyone apart from those for whom it was originally designed. We knew this way before September 11. According to Home Office statistics, 97% of those arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act - a series of draconian measures supposed to thwart the IRA - between 1974 and 1988 were released without charge. Only 1% were convicted and imprisoned.

The strike rate since the declaration of the war on terror has not been particularly impressive either. More than 700 people have been arrested under the Terrorism Act since September 11, but half have been released without charge and only 17 convicted. Only three of the convictions relate to allegations of extremism related to militant Islamic groups.

And our allies in this bid to limit freedom at home so that we can ostensibly extend it abroad have not had much more success. According to a recent investigation by the Washington Post, fewer than 10% of the people prosecuted for terrorism were convicted of crimes related to terrorism or national security. Of those, few had any connection to al-Qaida while the remaining 90% were acquitted or convicted of lesser crimes like immigration violations or making false statements.

"The sum total of [greater police powers] is just to make people more frightened than ever," says the human rights lawyer Gareth Pierce. "They feel defensive and defenceless, and none of that makes us any safer." In the meantime, the abuse of these extra powers alienates the best potential resource any anti-terrorism unit can have - the communities from which terrorists emerge. This is what makes Friday's shooting all the more damaging.

The Muslim Council of Britain, invited to Downing Street last week to discuss how to douse the flames of militant Islam, said it had received "numerous distressed calls" since the shootings. Muslims now have to balance their fear of suicide bombers with the fear of a paramilitary-style execution at the hands of London's finest. That the victim was Brazilian will be of little comfort to Muslims. In the few seconds it takes to pull the trigger, nobody is going to ask whether they are Sikh, Muslim, Hindu, British, Pakistani or Peruvian.

This is not an argument against offending Muslim sensibilities - though that case should be made often and forcefully. Muslims are no more keen on being slaughtered indiscriminately in the middle of the day than anyone else. And given many of the sites that the bombers have chosen (buses from Hackney, trains at Aldgate East and Edgware Road) Muslims are as likely to be victims as anyone else - if not more so. It is an argument for better intelligence. Given that the government denies any connection between terrorism and foreign policy, intelligent intelligence is our only hope.

But as the hunt continues for those involved in the last two terrorist incidents, the authorities appear no closer to devising a strategy for working out where the next one might come from. They have proven their skill to gather evidence to reconstruct what has happened after the fact; but are as yet unable to fathom the admittedly far more difficult task of how to gather the kind of intelligence that might prevent the fact itself.

For political and emotional reasons it has been necessary for some to dehumanise the bombers - to eviscerate them of all discernible purpose, cause and motivation. Stripped to their immoral minimum, they are simply "evil monsters". For those who wish to vent or need to grieve, such a response is understandable.

Those looking for tails and tridents on the CCTV footage of the bombers will be disappointed. In the words of Wednesday Addams, they look like everybody else. If the security services are going to have any chance of infiltrating the bombers they must first humanise those involved. They need to find out what would motivate young men who apparently have so much to live for to die - and kill - in such a manner. Only then can they discover how to spot the determined and stop them in their tracks, and how to catch those vulnerable to their message before they fall into the clutches of the terrorists.

The only extra power the police need in this effort is the power of persuasion - the ability to gain the confidence of the Muslim community by convincing them that the aim is to catch terrorists, not to criminalise their community.

In February, after Sajid Badat, a 25-year-old ex-grammar school boy from Gloucester admitted planning to blow up a flight between Amsterdam and the US, the head of the Metropolitan police's anti-terrorist branch, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke, said: "We must ask how a young British man was transformed from an intelligent, articulate person who was well respected, into a person who has pleaded guilty to one of the most serious crimes that you can think of."

A policy that lets the police shoot first and ask that question later will have a drastic effect on the kind of answer they are likely to get.

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