The bloody public murder of Private Lee Rigby outside Woolwich army barracks last May was a rare act of frenzied brutality which most will accept warranted harsh punishment. So why, when sentencing the two killers to life on Wednesday, did the court feel compelled to insist that it was imposing such long sentences because the homicidal Islamists hacked the soldier to death ‘in order to advance your extremist cause’, as if trying to decapitate a man in a London street was not crime enough?
As Brendan O’Neill pointed out on spiked amid the immediate panicky political and media response to the killing, the Woolwich atrocity was ‘a knife crime, not an act of war’ carried out by two deluded loners rather than an invading army. The danger in treating it as something more is that you can end up ‘doing the terrorists’ dirty work for them’, endorsing their self-aggrandising self-image as terrifying jihadist soldiers threatening our society.
The Old Bailey sentencing hearing this week sounded like a case in point. At every turn, the prosecutors and the judge were keen to emphasise the extremist political character of the murderous assault. Prosecution QC Richard Whittam argued that both Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale should receive whole-life tariffs (meaning they would never be released from prison), not only because of ‘the severity of their crime’ but crucially because of ‘its political motivation’. The judge, Mr Justice Sweeney, imposed a whole-life term on Adebolajo and a minimum 45-year tariff on Adebowale because they had murdered ‘a solider in public daylight’ in order ‘to advance your extremist cause’. After the hearing, Sue Hemming, head of special crime and counter-terrorism at the Crown Prosecution Service, told the media that the whole-life term was justified in these circumstances, because ‘not only was the attack brutal and calculated’, but more importantly ‘it was also designed to advance extremist views’.
During the trial itself, Adebolajo had caused a storm by admitting that he killed Private Rigby yet insisting that this was not murder because he was a ‘soldier of Allah’ engaged in a war against Britain on behalf of Muslims everywhere. The judge felt moved to advise the jury, presumably with a straight face, that this bizarre claim was not a legitimate defence to a charge of murder under English law. Yet weeks later, at the sentencing hearing, all of the legal authorities appeared to accept Adebolajo’s case that he was more than a common murderer, an armed rebel with a cause.
Partly, no doubt, this farce reflects the influence of the politics of fear today, the climate of uncertainty and insecurity that leads the authorities in the UK and elsewhere to blow up any localised problem into a threat to ‘our way of life’. Hence the Lib-Con coalition government reacted to the brutal murder of one soldier in Woolwich by holding emergency meetings of its top-level Cobra security committee, as if the country really were at war. The judge and prosecutors reinforced that air of top-level paranoia by treating Private Rigby’s killers as mortal enemies of the state.