In the early hours of 8 March 2008 Alejandro Ordaz Moreno, a PhD student, was seized at gunpoint as he left a bar in Seville. He violently resisted what he believed to be a kidnap attempt, but his assailants were plainclothes police, and he’s now been charged with assaulting them.
The case highlights how our beliefs and prior experiences shape our interpretations of events. Moreno was born and grew up in Mexico, which has the highest kidnap rate in the world (an estimated 1,200 in 2007). With such a background, it is unsurprising that Moreno interpreted the events of March 8th as attempt to kidnap him, and reacted accordingly.
The police’s violent response to Moreno’s attempt to escape is more understandable when viewed in light of their belief that Moreno was a suspect in a serious and violent sexual assault case. He bore a considerable physical resemblance to the suspect, and was walking through a quiet part of town late at night. He was going home: they thought he was on the prowl. This misapprehension guided their violent responses to his escape attempt. In fact, both Moreno and the officers interpreted the situation wrongly, but they were both making valid interpretations of the facts available to them: neither of them should be blamed for the mistake.
I heard about the Moreno case from a friend who emailed me the story, which was published in Spanish in the online edition of the Seville local paper. This ‘peer-to-peer’ reporting is archetypal of 21st century ‘viral media’. Viral media perpetuates an illusion of omniscience: the internet puts the world at our fingertips, and so it’s easy to believe that we have access to ‘the truth’ about an issue. However, our choice of media, and the extent to which we trust it, biases our experience. We must accept that both individuals and nations have imperfect knowledge of the world. That acceptance will foster tolerance of different interpretations of the same events, and of the ensuing mistakes.
The current trend for apportioning blame following any mistake has led our governments to use criminal charges to intimidate their adversaries into accepting the blame. The publication of the IPCC report on the Forest Gate shootings in 2006 coincided neatly with the arrest of the victim on child pornography charges. The charges were quietly dropped 2 months later, but the arrest quelled any public sympathy which might have been aroused by the report’s admission that an innocent man was shot by police. By charging Moreno, the police have given themselves a bargaining chip when dealing with him, and have dissipated public support for him.
This unsavoury and crude approach can only contribute to resentment in the long term.