Well, it has taken a long time but there is more joy over one sinner that repenteth, etc, so let us welcome our government’s discovery of the word “sorry.”

During the last three months of disorders apologies have been thin on the ground. First aiders, reporters and other bystanders have been shot, and suspects beaten on live television. Guantanamo-worthy stories have emerged from a mysterious detention centre in the New Territories. Suspects have been pursued into hospital casualty departments, apparently in accordance with the time-honoured theory that anyone who has been injured in a protest should be charged with something, in order to discredit the subsequent complaint.

Kowloon Mosque october 20
Kowloon Mosque. Photo: Telegram.

Yet the only apology, from the Chief Secretary, was for the occasion when the police walked away from a gang attack on an MTR train. And the reaction to this from the police unions was so vigorous that the CS then apologised for apologising.

All this left me quite unprepared for the official reaction to the police water cannon bombarding the front steps of the Kowloon Mosque with blue dye. Suddenly spectacular apologies were the order of the day. The Chief Executive in person turned up, with the Commissioner of Police in tow, at the afflicted installation.

In fairness to other religions there was also an apology somewhat later, and somewhat less enthusiastic, to St Andrew’s Church, just down Nathan Road, which was also treated to a new blue colour scheme.

Police spokesmen managed to look contrite, although I was not impressed by their follow-up idea, which was to dig a superintendent out of a department who has nothing to do with riots or water cannons to offer an unlikely excuse. This was apparently based on the idea that Muslims would be more likely to swallow a cock and bull story if it was related by someone surnamed Mohammed.

Carrie Lam Stephen Lo mosque apology
Photo: GovHK.

Unfortunately, no officer surnamed Christ was available to explain the dousing of St Andrew’s.

In fact it seems that the Kowloon Mosque is getting a unique level of service: visit from police PR lady, apology in person from Carrie, detailed if implausible explanation at police press conference. You wouldn’t get that if they had doused you, and neither would I.

I will not explore the evidently peculiar feelings that our leaders nurture about Muslims.

One must, though, sympathise with one of the people who was standing in front of the Mosque at the wrong moment, who refused to accept the explanation that it was entirely “an accident.” I realise we should be slow to rush to judgement on the basis of video clips, but the one in this case doesn’t leave much room for doubt. The water cannon truck lumbers up the road, it stops, it squirts, it lumbers on.

YouTube video

The mosque is a large and distinctive building. Clearly it was not the target. The target was the people standing in front of it. They were not protesting, still less rioting. Some of them were reporters, some of them Muslims who were there to protect the Mosque.

Just a routine dousing of bystanders then. Nothing to see here. Move on.

We are left with some further evidence of a fact that has been obvious for some time. Contending with street protests is difficult, but not as difficult as our police people sometimes make it look. This is because their training and practice puts more emphasis on gung ho applications of force than on restraint and self-control.

Clearly there is some awareness of this. One of the recurring themes of those videos on which we are urged not to rush to judgement is the spectacle of sergeants and mates restraining colleagues who are about to lose it.

Translated into water cannon terms this means that there is a temptation to ramp up what is going down the nozzle. Water is harmless. So water is for wimps. Why squirt water when you can squirt blue dye laced with pepper spray?

Kowloon Masjid and Islamic Centre, mosque
Kowloon Masjid and Islamic Centre. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Well, actually there is a good answer to this question. Pepper spray is not dangerous to healthy adults, but if it is sprayed randomly in open spaces there is no guarantee that healthy adults will be the only recipients. So it should be used sparingly, if at all.

Similarly, the blue dye looks spectacular, and no doubt is more satisfying if you are watching from inside the truck, but it has the disadvantage that it will impose pollution on people and buildings who have done no harm and are not breaking the law.

It was nice of the police to volunteer help with cleaning the Mosque, but how many other buildings have been arbitrarily treated to the blue rinse? Again, nobody will say there are no circumstances in which blue dye is useful, but they are heavily outnumbered by the circumstances in which it is unnecessary and resoundingly tactless.

One of the guardians of the Mosque now says he has changed his view of the Hong Kong police, of whom he used to be a loyal supporter. He has, alas, plenty of company.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.