JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 24.5.13.
IN BROAD daylight, on what looks like an ordinary British street, a young man with blood on his hands looks into the lens of a mobile phone camera, and spits out his creed. He and one other man have just hacked to death an off-duty British soldier, in what he sees as an act of vengeance. He says that he and those who share his beliefs will never stop fighting, or threatening the lives of British citizens, until British troops withdraw from Muslim lands. He says it, though, in the voice of East London and Essex. And in a final irony, the phrase he uses to justify his actions – “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” – is one that appears in the early scriptures of all three great Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam; although all three, in different ways, have moved on from it, and the New Testament of the Bible explicitly and movingly rejects it.
Faced with such an act of violence, in other words, any society has only one question to answer: and that is whether we join the killers in their delusional and divided world, riven by some kind of perpetual war between Islam and the rest, or whether we choose to remain in the real world, where ordinary Londoners of all faiths and none, passing the scene of this horrible crime, huddle together in shock on the pavements, and even – in one or two memorable cases – walk forward to face the killers, and to see whether they can help the dying man.
And so far, almost all the public pronouncements around this crime have suggested that the two killers will not succeed in their aim of “starting a war in London”. The Prime Minister, David Cameron – at his one-nation best – has clearly and explicitly said that this is not about Islam, or about a conflict between Muslims and other people in Britain, but about bringing to justice violent criminals who threaten everyone. His tone has been echoed by the London Mayor Boris Johnson, and by all the leaders of Britain’s Muslim community; and as in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings, eight years ago, there must be a chance that this horrible event will actually strengthen the resolve of ordinary Londoners to ensure that their great city remains what it is, one of the most successful and dynamic multicultural communities on earth.
Yet there is no room for complacency, among all these fine and commendable words; for like any atrocity, yesterday’s event will inevitably trigger a major struggle between knee-jerk responses that simply mirror the attitudes of the killers – tribal, violent, sectarian, divisive – and the kind of mature civic responses, inclusive, non-violent, and governed by the rule of law, which embody an alternative set of values, and offer the best long-term chance of defeating and marginalising political violence. The most obvious advocates of the mirror-image response, of course, are extreme-right groups like the English Defence League, whose best reaction to Wednesday’s crime is to march out and attack the first mosque they can find.
Much more important, though, is the streak of ambivalence in the reaction of Britain’s political establishment, perhaps best exemplified by the strange paradox of the Prime Minister both insisting that the best response to terrorism is to carry on as normal, and returning home at speed to chair a high-drama meeting of the government’s security committee, Cobra. To talk the talk of civic decency, of social and cultural inclusion, and of the defence of the rule of law, is one thing, and far from unimportant at moments like these.
The fact is, though, that western goverments over the last decade have often failed to walk the walk of these sentiments; instead, they have frequently responded to such attacks in a way that effectively colludes with the terrorist agenda, by elevating their violent crimes to the status of a “war”, by introducing counter-terror legislation that destroys the very civil liberties that make our societies worth defending, and – most notoriously – by launching ill-advised military responses that only act as recruiting sergeants for the groups they are trying to defeat.
The reasons for this failure are complex, both psychologically and structurally; governments have to be seen to be “doing something” to protect the population. Yet just as President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned, as he left office in 1961, of the influence on policy of the emerging “military-industrial complex” in America, so we need to be wary of our now extremely large and powerful “security-industrial” complex. After every atrocity, members of this powerful lobby – including the former Home Secretary, John Reid – suddenly appear on the media, arguing for ever more elaborate security technology, ever more surveillance, ever more restrictions of civil liberty and privacy, many of them profoundly damaging to the ethos of a free and democratic society; in government decision-making, their advice is often accepted far too uncritically, and at vast expense.
For in the end, resistance to the values of criminals like the Woolwich killers involves something much tougher than the mere expression of strong civic sentiments, important though that is; it involves a serious political determination to resist all the vested interests – in our society, our economy, and even our own minds – that stand to gain from a politics of division and conflict. In the aftermath of the terrible assault by Anders Breivik in Norway two years ago, the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg famously vowed that his country would respond not by changing its values, but by reinforcing them; he promised more democracy, more openness, more humanity, as the best answer to Breivik’s politics of hate. And over the next few months, we will see how well the UK stands up to the test of maintaining those highest civic values, in the face of violent attack; not only in the words spoken by our leaders, but in the true respect they show for the liberty of citizens, for their fundamental equality before the law, and for their right to join together in resisting unaccountable and destructive power, whatever form it takes, and whatever faith or ideology it chooses, as its excuse.