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.

On dehumanising victims

So three prostitutes have been murdered. They weren’t people, then? They had no lives outside their sexual trade, no families, no loved ones, no hopes, fears or plans? This is not to suggest that their work is irrelevant, or should never have been mentioned, or should not figure in the analysis of the “back-story” of this appalling series of events. But it is intolerable that these women’s lives should be so one-dimensionally dismissed. By focusing so relentlessly on their status as prostitutes, their worth as human beings is systematically dismantled.

There is a ghastly parallel here with the treatment of the alleged killer of these women. Leaving aside what has become sickeningly routine in the reporting of cases like this, when any semblance of a truly fair trial is torpedoed by the quasi-trial of prurient and salacious innuendo conducted in advance by the tabloids, the usual demonisation of offenders continues apace. And so a terrible symmetry begins to emerge. Less-than-human victims, whose very trade it is suggested in some way indicates that their terrifying demise was almost self-inflicted; and a monster perpetrator who is not so much human as embodiment of an evil that has a palpable presence outside of any actual person.

And where does that leave us, the more or less willing audience for this danse macabre? It leaves us distanced and off the hook. We are enabled to ditch moral responsibility in favour of horror-film detachment. Prostitution is nothing to do with us. Those who embark upon such a career sign away their right to our engagement, our sympathy, our understanding. Wickedness is likewise removed from us and bestowed upon a pantomime villain with whom we have no connection, who is not like us in any way, and whom we can safely use as a lightning conductor for our own darkest thoughts and feelings.

There are no winners here.* Certainly not the hapless victims. Certainly not the accused. Certainly not justice, either as an ideal or as embodied in the criminal justice system. And certainly not our collective health.

Perhaps, even worse, by this routinised, choreographed reduction of tragedy into a repulsive entertainment, we ensure that it will be endlessly repeated, as our attention is fatally distracted from the causes and what might be done to mitigate them.

* Actually, I’m wrong about this. There are some winners – the proprietors of trashy newspapers and sensationalist websites who see their circulations peak, and their advertising revenues jump. But their ephemeral benefits reaped from the misery of others will soon revert to the steady income from footballers’ infidelities, talent-show trivia, and soft-porn photography.