Barbarism. That is the only word fit to describe the events that unfolded on a Woolwich street this afternoon. According to eye witnesses a young man wearing a Hope for Heroes shirt was run over and then hacked to death by two men of “Muslim appearance” [sic]. The perpetrators then explained their motives to passers by and into camera (now hosted by ITV News) and apparently shouted “Allahu Akbar” at irregular intervals. When the police showed up, they allegedly charged them and were promptly shot by armed officers, then taken to hospital.
Let’s just be clear about a couple of things. While the man in ITV’s video said this crime was a taste of what goes on “in our lands”, that hardly justifies cold blooded murder. This gut-wrenching, frenzied attack is no more representative of Islam and Muslims than the grotesque outrage perpetrated by Anders Breivik was of the Christian Europe he claimed to be “defending”. That’s it, full stop. There is no “legitimate grievance” here. Nor does it have anything to do with Britain’s 2.7m Muslims, or the supposed “failures” of multiculturalism. This is an awful killing motivated by a perverse, convoluted revenge fantasy dreamed up by two pathetic murderers. And that’s where it should end.
But it won‘t. These two men were obviously media savvy. They knew a brutal unprovoked attack on a man likely to be a squaddie outside a barracks would attract furious headlines and dominate the news cycle. They knew the almost casual nonchalance and interaction with witnesses after the murder guaranteed acres of print. And they knew their apparent attempts to film the attack themselves, and subsequent statements to camera would be watched by many hundreds of thousands of people. This was a very visible murder: an act they wanted on every front page, every TV screen, every Twitter feed.
Acts of terror have always relied on the spectacle. Indeed, you don‘t need to be well-versed in postmodern waffle to accept Jean Baudrillard’s argument that the September 11th attacks were about semioticsas much as anything else. It was an attack at the very heart of American power, designed to be “high impact” as well as mass casualty. But for all that it, the Bali and Madrid bombings, the London 7th July attacks were presented as episodes in a global war, a clash of civilisations between the American Empire and Jihadi insurgency. And, of course, as appalling as these awful crimes were it was a narrative that suited neocon hawks and extreme Islamists in equal measure.
But going by what the media has reported so far, the Woolwich murder is different. An awful, barbaric spectacle, yes. But not an “action” in a global war. It appears to be an act of vengeance – at least to the murderers themselves. But more than that at the same time. It reminds one of the “propaganda of the deed”, the terror attacks favoured by some 19th century anarchists. Just as they believed blows struck at the high and mighty would rouse the toiling masses from their slumbers, the explanation of motive given to camera by one of today’s murderers is designed to draw attention to the awful things that are happening in the Middle East.
But their casual brutality guarantees this will be the last thing that gets talked about.
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