Wednesday 22 May 2013

Woolwich Murder: Spectacle and Message

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 semiotics as 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.


Lindsay Horne said...

To be honest, I found the governments desperate clamouring to shout "terrorism" the most offensive part of the incident (after the murder, obviously). It was an awful act of hate and violence by individuals. A murder. Not an act of terrorism. The news coverage of it was massively knee-jerk and offensive, especially, as you pointed out, the need to report the men as being described as "of Islamic appearance." Would a murderer in an overcoat be described as "of Jehovah's Witness appearance"? Or a white clean-shaven man as "of Christian appearance"? As always, it's distract the people from domestic politics by creating an atmosphere of fear of 'foreigners'. Ugh is all I can say.

Phil said...

I completely agree. Was it necessary to "active" the ludicrously-named COBRA disaster management committee? No. By immediately going in and labelling a horrific and brutal murder as terrorism the powers-that-be can reap cheap capital by looking and talking tough.

In the mean time, the gutter press, the scum of the far right, your pub bigots and armchair racists will get on their and high horses, spreading their poison and their hate. And who then will suffer? Black folk, asian folk, anyone of a "muslim appearance" who will bear the brunt of an orchestrated backlash.

Speedy said...

If hacking off someone's head in a London street in daylight isn't "spectacle" i don't know what is.

Was it any less justified than 7/7? Why is it an act of somehow different "quality"? I don't understand.

Of course it is representative of Islam, they were shouting allahu akbar for heaven's sake!

Equally one could say attacks on abortion clinics are an extreme aspect of Christianity.

It is simply about character and quantity. Why do some people on the Left put their critical faculties aside when it comes to Islam? Sure Muslims are a minority in the UK and the vast majority do not support extremists any more than Irish people supported the IRA. Having said that plenty of Irish people sympathised with Republicanism without supporting terrorism. I wasn't Irish and I did!

The Left has long been in denial about Islam, to the detriment of many Muslims.

Instead of banging on about "just another terror attack" the government should acknowlege Islam is not simply another brand of Buddhism but has a character unique to itself and follow the example of the Turkish and French who police the mosques and take robust action against extremists. The Turks offered the UK their expertise but were turned down.

Otherwise the extremists win, by hook or by crook, with policy makers implicit in their domination of communities. Ignoring these realities is frankly racist, as if just because most Muslims are not white they are somehow less entitled to the rights shared by all other Britons to not be bullied or have their children subjected to violent extremism.

Lindsay Horne said...

When they mention 'COBRA' I immediately imagine some sort of Gerry Anderson created band of square-jawed do-gooders. I imagine that's the idea.

Speedy said...

Honestly Lindsay and Phil - shades of Dave Spart!

Reading you two you'd think it was staged by ITV. Pretty deluded, and fantastically decadent.

Phil said...

I don't know what you're talking about, Speedy.

Regards Islam, the fact that crimes of this character are mercifully rare says all I need to know about the supposed "special quality" of Islam. It doesn't exist. I repeat in case you missed it:

"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". "

It's not a blind spot, it's a recognition there is no correspondence between the 2.7m Muslims who live in Britain, and the two men who did what they did today.

Anonymous said...

Such events are a simply a tragedy for innocent families.

The lash back is empowered by the collective Great British mentality, the more extreme aspects of this are fertilized by media and social networks. Horrific organisations such as the EDL have significantly increased their traffic on one social network site today, and are making the most out of what should have been treated as a brutal murder.

Is the media and government reaction an oversight, or a manipulated shame that will further divide, radicalize and conquer?

One observation that I take a dim view on is that rather than collectively trying to bring the perpetrators of this crime down, that people just stood around with camera phones. Will we ever remember to look after each other again?

FYI Phil COBRA stand for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. Not so ludicrous.

Speedy said...

Rare? It depends on your definition.

Northern Irish terrorism could have technically been described as "rare". I think one would be hard-pressed to say there is no correspondence between it and the Northern Irish.

I think you're creating a strawman to be honest - in a sense doing the racist's job for them. No one is trying to tie it to the "2.7 Muslims" but equally to deny there is any relationship to Islam is just absurd. The Muslims are as responsible for these extremists as the British-Irish were for the UDA/IRA.

Speedy said...

"Is the media and government reaction an oversight, or a manipulated shame that will further divide, radicalize and conquer?"

I think you should get over yourself Anon - recent studies had the British as one of the most tolerant and accepting nationalities on the planet. The only people trying to divide, etc, are the extremists.

Anonymous said...

This is a sickening attack.I could not care less what race,gender,religion the criminals up.I hope they get what is coming to them.

Anonymous said...

The EDL taking to the streets. Next it will be woolwich terrorists were benefit scroungers. Followed by net censorship cameron the hero. And the investigations into VIP child sex abuse will be forgotten about

Howard Fuller said...

Time to stand up against all extremists, Left right and religous I'd say.

And have:

Phil said...

No Speedy, I don't accept your link between Muslims and Woolwich. In the same way I don't believe there is a link between my evangelical Christian mates and the murderers who shoot abortion clinic staff.

Interestingly, from this morning's Graun it would seem one of the murderers was himself a victim of a violent knife attack when he was 16. He witnessed someone getting stabbed to death. I would suggest this psychological trauma has a greater bearing on the crime he committed on Wednesday than Islam.

Anonymous said...

The media have gone truly hysterical over this horrific knifing, knifings are pretty common in London BTW.

The word terrorism is nothing more than a propagandistic word used by mass murdering Westerners to explain the blow back, or to describe the actions of the enemy. 'Our' murderers are heroes, 'theirs' are terrorists. So from that point of view this fits perfectly within the act of terrorism.

In the same week the government were criticised by the courts for their attitude to the torture and murder of Iraqi detainees. We have reaped what we sow and those in army uniforms cannot complain when they are attacked. Comes with the job, after all, that is what 'Heroes' have to put up with.

But this whole depressing shit was inevitable after the invasion and slaughter in Iraq, among other high crimes. New Labour should go down in history among the very worst regimes in history.

Speedy said...

"We have reaped what we sow... this whole depressing shit was inevitable after the invasion and slaughter in Iraq..."

There were plenty of attacks before the Iraq invasion, and I'm pretty sure they weren't all by blokes who just happened to randomly attack someone for reasons apparently entirely unrelated to Islam.

Phil said...

Well there is now a suggestion that one of the perpetrators was harassed by the intelligence services. If that is the case it adds more weight to the psychopathology of the whole case.

Regarding Islamist terrorism more generally, terror has material roots. It doesn't exist simply because one set of people don't like another very much. As such it's useless to try and understand Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah and similar organisations without grasping the political economy of the region, the US backing of pretty repugnant regimes, its constant interventions in the area and, of course, the existence of the state of Israel. And that's regardless of whether one views Israel and the US in a positive light or not.

Speedy said...

Well yes, and no. I believe the Woolwich attacker was involved with hardcore extremist organisations before MI5 involvement, and they may have become interested in him after he tried to join one in Kenya. Good luck to them - they're doing their job trying to protect me, and you, Phil, and they seem to be doing pretty well considering convictions for terrorist activity.

On your second point, well, yes - but surely it is enough to exist to become a target for Wahabi-Islamist-inspired terrorists?

The roots of Islamism go back to the 1930s when the MB's founder was disgusted by liberated women on a stay in America. AQ didn't give a toss about Israel (they added that in later when they saw it had traction) - OBL's main goal was to remove US troops from sacred Saudi soil following their defence of Kuwait (hardly an occupation - mainly to put off Saddam). Hizb were clients of the Russian-backed Syrian regime fighting a proxy war with US-backed Israel in the 1980s. They are also the product of a region where Christianity survived and communal violence is common. Hamas came about due to Israeli intransigence and pathological strategic stupidity (albeit backed by the US).

My point is, and I would imagine you'd appreciate this, there are complex and diverse causes for these movements, possibly originating in the break up of the Caliphate. Islamic fundamentalism, to take a particular branch, has been a huge problem for ordinary people for years - Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz's career was almost ended after he was stabbed in the neck by an Islamist in '94. How much did that have to do with the US/Israel nexus, I don't know...

The Turks took matters in to their own hands by rolling back Islam and imposing a secular state, thanks to which Turkey can now enjoy a reasonable level of democracy and tentatively allow back some Islamic influence. Certainly the ME has been subject to influence by the West, both good and ill, but I think it is rather patronising and naive to lay all its problems at the door of the West, and as a socialist I am surprised you wear these blinkers with regards to a religion, any religion.

Anonymous said...

"There were plenty of attacks before the Iraq invasion"

Not quite the level we have seen since I would venture. But there were plenty of atrocities carried out by imperialism before the Iraq crime.

Imperialism, i.e. the axis of high evil, the USA, Britain, France, Israel etc, want the Middle East split into a thousand little ethnic pieces. The policy seems to be working.

Meanwhile the US soldier who killed 17 women and children in Iraq is walking free, albeit with a tag! I guess that guy would be considered a hero in our sick society.

Anonymous said...

Speedy is your classic imperialist apologist I think, feeling the need to explain the hows and whys about who imperialism considers it's enemies. He fails to ask the whys and hows in regard to actual imperialism. According to apologists like speedy, imperialist mass murderers do not need explaining, for they are rational and enlightened and perfectly natural.

Speedy said...

Anon, I feel the need to explain because I'm weary of lazy thinking and sloganeering. Facile, illogical conclusions fashioned from splendid intellectual palaces.

Does my analysis threaten you because it is actually based on some understanding of the facts rather than easy labels?

Islam was every bit as imperialistic as Western civilisation, and one of the things we have seen over the past century is the fall out of that great imperialistic project the Ottoman Empire.

The irony is that people like you fail you understand how "orientalist" and racist your mindset is - you are so convinced your Western perspective is superior you do not give others, in this case Islam, the credit of being its very own "imperialistic" project. By regarding Islam - and by extension Muslims - as a "victim" you are placing yourself in a position of power. Yours is an imperialism of the mind.

Speedy said...

Anon, let me put talk of “imperialism” in context:

Late stage capitalism (really blossoming post-1989) is the greatest threat to social democracy, by which I mean socialism by democratic consent (EU, Russia, China, NAFTA etc) and the vacuum of democratic accountability/ end of borders and the nation state. It is an imperial project that could be said to have commenced from the 1800s. The previous great imperialist project was Islam, through the Caliphate, which officially endured until 1917, although it was a dead man walking from around the time Napoleon was laying waste to the ME. Previous to that we had the Roman Empire. The Spanish Empire I’d write off, China was about China, and the British Empire I’d lump in with “capitalism”.

Islam was the most aggressive and successful imperial project since Rome, combining faith and governance for the first time. Arguably Muslim-majority nations do so badly today – those that aren’t sitting on oil – precisely because of this unique hegemonic characteristic: credit being “unIslamic” is a good example. Islam was an imperial force (a bit like Rome) based on expansion – expand or die – so it is little surprise its extreme adherents resort to violence to “solve” their problems. Even the oft-cited verses about peace are full of exceptions, ignored by moderate Muslims as often as they are cited by extremists. The Woolwich event was a typical example – it may be that the young man had all sorts of social problems, but the role of Islam cannot be denied: it provided him with a justification for his anger and the opportunity to channel it “positively”, as he presumably saw it. Sure – he may have become a criminal, he could have become a boxer or a priest. But you cannot take Islam out of the equation.

Islam is by no means the greatest threat to our freedom (true freedom of equality and opportunity realizable through genuine social democracy) but ignoring it and belittling it and misunderstanding it (as “just another religion” as opposed to the imperial project it became) is to be blind to the challenges of our time. Islam is finished as a hegemony (the Islamists will achieve little in real terms) just as communism is. Arguably under true social democracy one may encounter less Islamic extremism, but its roots are extremely deep (not least because materialism isn’t everything). Personally I think, like the poor, it will always be with us. And it will not necessarily be our fault.

Anonymous said...

Islam was imperialist, I guess Christianity was once also. But let us talk about the here and now.
The USA spend more on their military than the next 16 nations in the list combined, Other important indicators such as, the size of the banking and finance sectors, the stock of foreign direct investment, the global use of a country’s currency in international foreign exchange reserves etc all point to a nations level of imperialism and guess what the West dominate, the USA spectacularly so.

The apologist for imperialism tends to use the tactic of ignoring all the categories that make up imperialism and swapping them for an anti scientific sort of they are all at it assertion. But the truth is concrete.

But, my criticism of you had nothing to do with denying that empires have historically developed and that hostility to them developed also. So you build a complete straw man.

My criticism of you was specifically that you are one of those apologists that seek to explain the hows and whys of imperialisms enemies, e.g. “the MB's founder was disgusted by liberated women on a stay in America”.

But you don’t ask the whys and hows of imperialism and where that mentality and mindset come from. We could ask how Israelis can sit in their cafes on the stolen land of the Palestinians while not giving a flying fuck about the brutality they dish out to the Palestinians on a daily basis. How do we explain that? Maybe some Zionist went on a visit to South Africa and was impressed with the way the blacks were kept in their place. The point is, for the imperialist apologist those questions don’t need to be applied to the imperialists, for they do not need explaining, because they are all that is natural and advanced in the world. What needs to be explained are those crazy guys with their crazy views.

Speedy said...

Maybe I'm missing the elephant in the comments section, but didn't my statements:

"Late stage capitalism... is an imperial project that could be said to have commenced from the 1800s."

"Islam is by no means the greatest threat to our freedom..."

clarify any misunderstanding you might have had about my "apology"?

Or maybe you didn't read my second post?

This is the here and now. It's not on the whole US guns and bombs that are the greatest threat to freedom but international trade laws, pacts and associations (that no longer need to be delivered along with a gunboat as by the UK in the 19C).

Late stage capitalism is the threat. However I challenged the impression that Islam was neutered. The democratic socialist should stand against imperial capitalism but also be aware that the violent urges of Islam also spring from a form of imperialism.

As for Israel and Zionists, of course it is an imperial project but I wish the Left would give as much space to the greatest contemporary crime of imperial capitalism, currently taking place in the Congo where a genocide equal to that of the 19th Century is taking place in the name of the new rubber - coltan - but one barely hears a squeak. Why is that?

jimboo said...

A quite interesting aspect of this is that the rise of EDL and BNP activity created a grass roots united anti fascist front in London based around the Lewisham and Woolwich communities. This has of course been hi jacked and has turned into a We cant survive without Martin Smith Fest and a newspaper sale in Downing Street. Oh well.

The World Around Me said...

This is a very interesting article on a very disturbing act. Although both parties kill - this act of terror is outrageous.