Woolwich: a terrifying symmetry

When a British soldier is hacked to death in broad daylight on a crowded street by two black Muslim men, it is hard to imagine a more fertile opportunity for the explosion of anger, outrage, and emotion that has inevitably ensued. The pattern is as tragic as it is predictable. The tearful, almost unbearably poignant press conference by the relatives of the murdered soldier. The protests by the English Defence League. The clichés by the politicians. The generally even cruder clichés from the press.

And so the familiar narrative takes shape. An innocent British soldier is attacked by crazed Muslims, but this isn’t anything to do with Islam, in case you thought it was. On the contrary, it’s only fundamentalists who’ve been brainwashed by internet radicals who do things like this, a point rammed home by exhaustive contributions by more cuddly Muslims asserting their undying solidarity with Britain and the British. In the meantime, the security forces will inevitably have had the perpetrators on some sort of list at some time or other, and will be accused of negligence. The explicit motivations expressed by the perpetrators – in this instance exclusively referred to as “perpetrators with bloodied hands” – are dismissed out of hand. This, we are assured, not only has nothing to do with Islam, it also has nothing to do with Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, or any aspect of British political or military behaviour. But most of all, we mustn’t waste any time or sympathy on the psychopathic killers, still less listen to them, but rather lavish all our attention on the brave victim and his family. This will ensure that we are able to focus on symbols and emotions that are consistent with the narrative that we are intended to absorb, whilst keeping us well away from anything that might undermine it. Set up in this way, the clear implication is that anyone who doesn’t swallow this narrative hook, line and sinker, is a callous bastard that doesn’t care about the brave soldier or his family.

Well, I don’t accept this narrative, and I do care very much for the soldier and his family. The agony of expecting your husband to be home for the long weekend, thinking him to be as safe as houses in the capital city, and then having to imagine his being butchered without mercy on the street, is beyond description, and beyond imagination.

But that is exactly the point. The horror of what has taken place demands that we do something to make it less likely to be repeated, not more likely. And this tired narrative, pitting the lunatic Islamic butcher against the innocent family man and brave soldier, all the while requiring that we firmly insert our fingers into our ears so as not to hear what the killers said in plain speech, is only going to make its repetition ever more likely.

Rather than refusing to listen to, or even acknowledge, what the killers said on the pretext that such publicity is exactly what they wanted, and that they must not thus be rewarded, we should listen very hard indeed. Michael Adebolajo, according to the BBC yesterday, is “28 years old and left college in 2001. He is said to come from a very devout Christian family but converted to Islam after college. He is described as having been bright and witty when he was at college.” He said to an unbelievably brave passer-by that “you people will never be safe…Remove your governments, they don’t care about you.”

These are not the words of a madman. Whatever else Michael Adebolajo is, he is evidently not a lunatic. Until we’re really prepared to try and understand what drives a “bright and witty” student to such an unspeakable act of barbarism as he carried out in Woolwich on Wednesday afternoon, then we will never work out how to stop his successors, as successors there will undoubtedly be.

What is clear, is this: that this young man has lost all ability to distinguish between real human people – that young and unsuspecting soldier – and the things that those people have come to symbolise for him. And I firmly believe that in a ghastly and symmetrical way, the narrative we are constantly enjoined to internalise does exactly the same thing back. Michael Adebolajo is no longer a human being, but a lunatic, a mere symbol of all we fear and abhor.

I feel deeply for Drummer Rigby and his family. But I feel just as deeply for Michael Adebolajo and his.

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3 thoughts on “Woolwich: a terrifying symmetry

  1. In my year 10 sociology class today, the students used their sociological knowledge to provide explanations for what happened and why. They were perceptive and engaged, using theory of anomie and explanations of cultural deprivation, as well as state and corporate crime to contextualise this attack. Although, like you, I do not wish to diminish the immense horror of what happened, nor excuse the actions of the murderers, we must engage and understand why radicalisation happens. A thoughtful post. Thanks.

    • Thanks Juliet. I’m glad to hear that your 14yr-olds have a more sophisticated understanding than the average Fleet Street editor or television news director. I only hope they can hang onto it as they are increasingly exposed to the drip-drip of simplistic narratives like this one…

  2. Very thought-provoking post. I am completely with you on the pernicious effects of the drip-drip of simplistic narratives. The only ray of light in this awful event is the unbelievably brave passer-by putting her own life on the line to stand there unflinchingly.

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