Woolwich: a knife crime, not an act of war

In overreacting to the frenzied stabbing in Woolwich yesterday, politicians and the police risk doing the killers’ dirty work for them.

Brendan O'Neill
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Topics Politics

What happened in Woolwich was horrific. However, there’s a real danger of overreacting. What we witnessed was a street murder, a frenzied knife attack carried out by two pathetic individuals claiming, in what sounded like South London accents, to be acting on behalf of aggrieved Muslims everywhere. It wasn’t a million miles away from those occasional senseless knife attacks by clinically insane people who claim to be Napoleon or Jesus Christ. Yet it’s being treated by politicians, the police and the media as an act of war, a terrifying challenge to Western civilisation. This elevation of an opportunistic murder to the level an all-out assault on our way of life graphically demonstrates how society itself can unwittingly do terrorists’ dirty work for them, by aggrandising their actions and amplifying their impact on politics and everyday life.

As hard as it may be, given the disgusting footage that exists, we must put yesterday’s events into perspective. Compared with the 7/7 bombings, which were also carried out by isolated, ridiculous individuals, the Woolwich stabbing was not a big or devastating act of terror, far less an act of war. It was a knife crime, and it should be treated as a knife crime. Also, far from representing an exotic foreign threat to our way of life, as claimed both by those who see the stabbers as representative of ‘Isalmofascism’ and those who think they express desperate Muslim anger with Britain’s foreign wars, in truth the men expressed some distinctly British trends. Their cries of ‘Film us!’ and ‘Take photos of us!’ spoke to today’s craven reality-entertainment culture, to a desire for instant fame, or perhaps instant infamy. And their claim to speak for all Muslims, for the people in ‘our lands’, surely springs from the politics of identity, from the backward belief that if you share cultural traits with certain people then you have the authority to speak for those people and their grievances. Grisly performers and self-righteous ‘community spokespeople’ – they seem to have been influenced by British rather than foreign phenomena.


Today’s Guardian front page

Yet rather than treating this as a knife crime committed by two deluded men, the authorities and media have treated it as a declaration of war. The powers-that-be have gone on to an actual war footing in response to it. PM David Cameron flew back from a political gathering in Paris, and is currently chairing a meeting of COBRA. It’s the second time COBRA – the government’s national emergency committee that convenes in the Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms – has met since the stabbing occurred. Politicians say we will ‘stand firm’ in response to what happened, as if Britain had just been invaded by a foreign army rather than having witnessed a horrible knife attack. Meanwhile, the media have transformed the two stabbers into massive threats to Britons. ‘You people will never be safe’, screams the front page of the Guardian, quoting one of the bloodied knifemen, next to a massive blown-up picture of him. This transformation of two losers into mortal threats to Britain and its values somewhat overlooks that both are currently badly injured, and will never walk the streets again.

The authorities’ overreaction to this act of murder represents a kind of unwitting moral collusion with the terrorists. In a very real way, it completes their act of terror, by allowing it to have the kind of impact that the two men on their own could never have: freaking out the British public, bringing the political class to its knees, and putting the security forces on high alert. The impact that an act of terrorism has on a society depends to an enormous degree on the institutional and moral coherence of that society. On their own, terrorists, especially two blokes with knives, cannot achieve very much, other than to inflict terrible pain on small numbers of people; but how society chooses to respond to their actions can have huge repercussions, genuinely impacting on how people experience their lives and how free we are. Today, from Boston to London, what gives so-called acts of ‘al-Qaeda terrorism’ their impact is not the acts themselves, which are always tragic but also small and scrappy, but rather the fragility of the target societies themselves, the deep feeling of insecurity in modern Western communities. It is our fearful response that gives terrorism its momentum, which completes the terrorist script set in motion by one or two men with knives or homemade bombs.

The danger is that in advertising our vulnerability in this way, we unwittingly invite future opportunistic attacks; certainly we do nothing to discourage them. In its response to the Woolwich murder, British society has thoughtlessly sent out a clear and quite scary message: if you want to hold the British political elite to ransom and transform yourself into an instantly famous representative of modern-day, civilisation-rattling evil, then all you need to do is carry out one bloody act on a street somewhere in London. You know what would have been a far better response? If Cameron had stayed in Paris, if COBRA had never met, if the two stabbers had simply been arrested and investigated by the police alone, and if their act of pseudo-political knife crime was covered on page 4 or 5 of the papers, not on page 1.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics