Thoughts on Woolwich
About fifteen years ago I took my elderly parents to a couple of war cemeteries in France. We were there to visit the graves of my mother’s uncle and my father’s half-brother. Both were killed in the First World War. They were buried within a few miles of each other.
It’s impossible not to be moved by the endless rows of gravestones, sitting in perfect symmetry among lawns and flowers on a breezy summer’s day. For me, as no doubt for the multitudes who have visited the same places before and after me, it was an unforgettable experience.
I think back to those graves when I read about yet another mass killing or mutilation in some part of the world. And in a curious kind of way I give thanks that the vicious attacks on the soldier in Woolwich and the runners in Boston produced such shock and outrage. Because the war in which my relatives died was an example of industrialised killing that has happened relatively infrequently in the past seventy years and hardly at all in the back yards of Britain and America.
That we can still be shocked shows how far we have come since 1945, when casualties in the thousands were the norm, and when weary populations were hardly capable of feeling any emotion, except when death touched those nearest to them.
Yet it’s hard not to get a sense that there is evil all around us. As a friend commented in an email this evening:
A deepening culture of total violence is setting in (or returning from the dark ages) by the day, that is the situation. That violence is financial sometimes (as in Bangladesh), physical (as in France), or political (as in the UK and in Mali). But it’s all around.
I don’t share his pessimism, but I understand it.
There are many parallels between the Boston bombers and the two men who took their cleavers to the young soldier who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In both cases they were on the radar of the security forces. In both cases the apparent perpetrators had roots in other countries. The Tsarnaev brothers and the Woolwich killers were well educated and at some point fell by the wayside form the mainstream of the societies in which they lived. It also seems that none of them expected to survive their encounters with the police.
Beyond that we’re in the realm of speculation. Were they part of a network? Were they manipulated by others? Were they alienated youngsters desperate to belong – who found no sense of belonging in the society in which they lived? Perhaps we will find out in the course of time.
The main difference between the Boston and Woolwich attacks was the public reaction to them. In the US, the dignified memorial to the victims set the tone for a far more emotionally intelligent response. By and large one got a sense that the thoughts of the many were with the victims, and focused on affirming Boston’s way of life, rather than on a flood of Islamophobic sentiment.
In the UK, the reaction of the English Defence League extremists was almost instant, and so were reports of fear among the Muslim community. This is not a good augury for the future.
Two more thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the Woolwich killings, neither of them particularly original.
First, it would be foolish to start pointing fingers at MI5 for their “failure” to stop the killers. We – and I’m speaking as a Brit – should be profoundly grateful for their efforts in heading off any number of similar threats in the years since 7/7. Of course there should be an investigation, but if there were failings they should be seen in the light of many successes.
Second, I’m left with a strong sense of “is that the best you can do?” If the vicious act of a couple of individuals is the return on six years’ effort on the part of tens and perhaps hundreds of jihadis who spend much of their lives mainlining extremist propaganda, then it doesn’t say much for their intelligence. This is not to say that there is no threat, and that the threat will not grow when those who survive their killing adventures in Syria return home. But one unfortunate soldier is a pretty meagre reward to date.
When the shock dies down, perhaps we should reflect on those gravestones in France, and give thanks that unlike our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents – and unlike many in today’s conflict zones – we are not living with the threat of instant death from the skies, or sitting in a corpse-strewn battlefield waiting for the shell that has our name on it.