It was a mad, barbarous attack, more akin to a particularly savage form of street violence than to a politically motivated act. What was striking about the incident was not just its depravity but the desire of the murderers for that depravity to be captured on film. This was narcissistic horror, an attempt to create a spectacle, enact a performance, and generate media frenzy. In that it succeeded. We should not provide the act with greater legitimacy by rationalizing it in political or religious terms. Even to call it a terrorist act is to give it too much credibility.
Brutal nihilism and narcissistic hatred are central threads of contemporary jihadism. This is as true of 9/11 and 7/7 and the Boston bombing as it is true of the Woolwich murder. But while 9/11 and 7/7 were degenerate acts, the Woolwich attack shows how much more degenerate such attacks have become over the past decade. This was jihadism as depraved street violence.
Such degenerate nihilism is not peculiar to jihadists. It drove the twisted, paranoid fantasies of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass killer, who wanted ‘to create a European version of al-Qaeda’. It underlay the mass shootings in America in Aurora and Sandy Hook. Such acts remain rare. But the inchoate, disengaged, misanthropic rage upon which they draw, and the hatred of people and the indifference to one’s actions that they express, has become typical of a very contemporary form of violence. The fact that Breivik claimed that he was waging a war in defence of Christendom, or that the Woolwich attackers shouted ‘Allahu Akhbar’ does not make them any less degenerate or nihilistic, or any more ‘political’, than the perpetrators of the Aurora or Sandy Hook killings.
To suggest that the Woolwich attack was not driven by political anger is not to deny that we should take the threat of Islamism seriously. But we should also understand what underlies ‘homegrown’ terrorism. There was something bizarre, indeed surreal, about seeing a young black man with a broad south London accent raging about British soldiers in ‘our lands’, and warning that ‘you people will never be safe’. It tells us less about his attachment to Islam than about his complete disengagement from British society. Islamism has become one expression of such disengagement and of such detachment from social norms.
The response by the authorities and the media played into the hands of the perpetrators. The best way to deal with terrorism, David Cameron observed in the immediate aftermath, was to carry on as normal. Yet, in turning the incident into a matter of national security, in suggesting that it might be a form of ‘planned terrorism’, in searching for possible Al Qaeda links, both the authorities and the media provided the murder with exactly the kind of legitimacy that the perpetrators craved.
There has been some debate about whether the film of the machete-wielding murderer justifying his actions should have replayed on TV. Censorship is no answer to such attacks. But while the media should not censor its coverage of such episodes, nor should it turn an incident of horror on the streets on Woolwich into a threat to the whole nation.
In contrast, the response of the public, especially those at the scene, was exemplary, even heroic. Passers-by tried to provide aid to the victim. One woman, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, even confronted the machete wielding murderer. ‘We want to start a war in London tonight’, he told her. ‘It is only you versus many people. You are going to lose’, was her response. Far right groups, the EDL in particular, have attempted to exploit the incident with gross anti-Muslim rhetoric. There have been a couple of cases of attacks on mosques. But these, so far at least, have been isolated cases. The general response has been a refusal to be terrorized, or to give in to bigotry. In that measured public response lies the real hope.
Rather lame stuff. The fact remains that if Islam (inter alia) was eliminated from the planet, we – including all muslims – would be better off.
I wonder precisely how you propose Islam be ‘eliminated’?
@David Woolf that’s stupid. You might as well say energy/matter would be better off without the big bang. You can’t know what the world would be without Islam, no matter how much you think you might.
Great piece, hits the nail right on the head.
Aworld without islam would be a much better world.
David, there is a distinction to be made between Islam and Islamism. It is partly the obsession with Islam that stops us recognizing both that what I call degenerate nihilism expresses itself in many different ways, and that Islamism is but one expression of it.
Spoken like a true bigotted colonialist, David
Just Islam, David, or all religions? Am not sure what that would achieve. How would you propose to ‘eliminate’ Islam? Let me guess, by invading Muslim countries & ‘enlightening’ them?
‘White Man’s Burden’ still alive & well, I see…
Reblogged this on msunderstand and commented:
Point number 4 especially important:
“To suggest that the Woolwich attack was not driven by political anger is not to deny that we should take the threat of Islamism seriously. But we should also understand what underlies ‘homegrown’ terrorism. There was something bizarre, indeed surreal, about seeing a young black man with a broad south London accent raging about British soldiers in ‘our lands’, and warning that ‘you people will never be safe’. It tells us less about his attachment to Islam than about his complete disengagement from British society. Islamism has become one expression of such disengagement and of such detachment from social norms.”
A good and thoughtful piece, Kenan, thanks. I might take issue with 5) simply because it is too early to dismiss the possibility that the perpetrators didn’t have wider links with terrorists and terrorist organizations
I agree with you about resisting the reactionary impulse to make this about religious extremism. It is also important, as you suggest, to distinguish between motives based on belonging to some ideological group, versus nihilistic rebellion resulting from feeling estranged from society as a whole.
Good article. The only thing I’d quibble with is that that quote from the woman who tried to talk the guy down, or at least keep him as calmly engaged as possible until the police turned up, does not appear to have been intended as some heroic ‘confrontation’ complete with some kind of “you’ll ne’er defeat us” rhetoric – which the Daily Mail tried to generate some heat out of spinning it as on its website last night – but, rather, a more mundane attempt to get him to think in a rational way that took account of his own simple self-interest (i.e. “it’s not a very sensible idea to start a war when you’re one or two people against a big crowd, is it, now?”).
A very good peice that tries to get to the bottom of the woolwich incident.
Rationalisation isn’t really an issue here, if people were rational this kind of thing simply would not .
This the cosequence of people mistreating other people around the world and the fact that global society are led be weak and greedy ‘leaders’, we all know who and what they are but yet and yet again we let them off the hook by voting for them and following them.
The very bizarreness of the killing, shows how dangerous things my yet become.
I may be misreading your comment, but if by the phrase ‘the consequence of people mistreating other people around the world’ you are suggesting that the Woolwich attack was the result of British foreign policy, I disagree. As I explained in my post on the Boston bombing, the claim that such attacks are political responses to Western policies towards Muslim countries is as implausible as the claim that Islam is the fundamental cause. Part of the reason for writing this post was to suggest we need to take a more nuanced approach to understanding such attacks.
No I’m sorry if this had be been 2 white soldiers who had murdered a black nigerian man in such a way, would we still have the same media hysteria?………..
A man named Baha Musa an Iraqi man who was murdered, kicked and beaten to death by british soldiers as if he were nothing. a man who did nothing to deserve the way he was treated, ironically a man who actually welcomed and supported the british troops into his country.
Where was the media hysteria for this man? where was the justice when all those responsible for his death walked free?.
It is not even about religion anyway, it has never been about religion. because nobody in their right minds would ever except any philosophy where it is ok mutilate and oppress women, murder people for their sexual orientation or behead someone for having other beliefs. That is why the Islamic Jihad will fail, they are not in their right minds, even those who share their twisted conservative logical think their halfwits.
Elephant in the room: 2 Black men murder white man, in a country where black men murdered by the state get no equal justice if the situation were reversed.
Are you telling me that if a country goes to war on another country and people are pulled out of their beds in the middle of the night accused of heinous crimes without proper cause handed over to the authourites for interrogation and tortue while. Doors are smashed in while their family is sleeping. Intimidation and the youth being targeted and jailed. Your going to tell me that therer won’t be consequences?…………
Sound like another day in Hackney.
David, suppose those two racist killers had claimed that they were acting in protest against what they considered to be Britain’s lax immigration laws. Would you then suggest that immigration laws had caused that murder?
I have no doubt that there is considerable rage against British foreign policy. That does not mean that we should lend legitimacy to what was little more than a savage form of street violence by imagining that it was some form of political response to that policy. I, too, am opposed to much British foreign policy. I have written about, and campaigned against, British injustice. That does not mean that I have to accept that the killing of Lee Rigby was a political act in response to that policy or that injustice. Nor does the fact that the media is hypocritical about terrorism and violence have no bearing on that view.
Excellent piece, as usual. I really agree with your analysis here and in previous posts suggesting that what happened in Woolwich and Boston are not isolated to Islam, but have much in common with Sandy Hook and the horror in Norway. These connecting threat of an underlying nihilism permeating much of world society seems obvious; I do not understand why more people/commentators have not picked up on it.
I wonder how much of this nihilistic expression is connected to the use of Islam as the current banner for the romantic escapade of “The Resistance”–the perfect enterprise for the young, (usually male) pathologically disaffected person–(that is, those whose critique against various untoward forces–today’s forces being neoliberalism, colonialism, unemployment–has, for some reason, taken a pathological turn)? It does seem to be a very modern, if not very contemporary, phenomenon.
There is, I think, an “archaeology” of this phenomenon–a trajectory-an evolution. I think an earlier version of this tendency can be seen in the alienated youth who seemed to come into full-blown existence in the 19th century. Their very existence as a sort of social category was enabled by various social developments of their day. This emerging phenomenon is ably described in such studies as Cesar Grana’s Modernity and Its Discontents: French Society and the French Man of Letters in the Nineteenth Century (1964–with such chapters as “The Climate of Intellectual Disaffection”, “The Ideological Significance of Bohemian Life” or “The Literary Man in Modern Society: Alienation, Boredom, Hedonism and Escape”)–or–Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives (2010). But in those days–in that stage of development of this phenomena of “disaffection”–the outlet for the disaffected was avant-garde art and literature, drink or foreign adventures
By the first half of the 20th century the alienated could become celebrated heros or artistic “geniuses” in the eyes of the “sophisticated” public who became vicarious participants in the “pleasures” of alienation and who “knew how to understand” these geniuses, (unlike the conservative hoi poloi of society who could not grasp such intricate artistic or political fare as the geniuses could produce)–leading to such terminology as “radical chic”.
Now–the whole phenomenon has taken on a globalized, digitalized and violent turn–possibly related to current social developments such as yet more unemployment, the often disturbing juxtapositions of very different sorts of people and the varied disruptions of older, more traditional social orders resulting from mass migrations and internet connections–and the ability to mobilize or show off for effect very quickly and globally. The production of the disaffected of today is no longer artistic and literary–and only occasionally foreign adventure (jihad warriors)–but now, their production is increasingly ranting on blogs or terrorism.
Interestingly, all of this was presciently (but probably unintentionally so) presented in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov (1880). There were four Karamazov brothers who each represented a characteristic which went on to typify the sorts of responses to modernity that are still with us: the hedonist, the religious, the soul-sick cynic–and the uncaring killer.
I agree with this well written piece except the second point where you tie it in with the 2005 and 2001 attacks on NY and London. Those two were highly organised and coordinated; the fact that they had obviously had a lot of planning put into them was part of why they were so affecting.
I haven’t seen any evidence that these were well planned and they definitely weren’t planned on any scale. If it was just those two guys acting on their own convictions or on bad advice from someone I don’t think it’s useful to put it in the category of ‘Jihadism’ with the Al-Qaieda attacks of the last decade (Madrid also)
I agree that the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks were well planned, organized and executed. But in political terms they were as degenerate as the Woolwich attack. In a political sense, it is not so much 9/11 or 7/7 that throw light on the Woolwich attack, as the Woolwich attack that throws light on the real character of 9/11 and 7/7.
But the planning and so on is absolutely political. In this sort of discussion political becomes meaningless because everything is political
You can’t deny the political nature of the fact that in London they blew up 5 trains or on 9/11 they crashed 3 planes. The scale of the attacks was the most political thing about them!
There is more to politics than size. By your logic it would appear that no form of small-scale violence would be political but any form of large-scale violence would. What makes an action ‘political’ is not its scale but its relationship to specific political goals and movements.
Thank you for the article. It is so important that people have a forum to speak about this rationally.
The desire to belong to something, to serve a cause of some kind can be channelled in such a positive way and create wonders of progress and prosperity – but when that same energy and instinct is misdirected, terrible acts of brutality can and do occur.
These murderers do not seem to be well educated or very articulate and because of their lack of the ability to think critically about what they had been told or read, they seem to have attached themselves to the search for justice for victims of violence in the most incoherent and terrible way.
The society which I grew up in talked about what was right first, about justice first, and then, eventually, how that might be funded. Since the Conservatives came to power in 1979, that argument was turned around – economics was first and foremost and ethics was a poor cousin. That has remained the case, no matter which party was in power. There is no doubt that the emphasis on making money at all costs has made the UK and other countries who followed the same narrow path a lot of money – we are all much richer than our grandparents but, as depression and anxiety rates climb, we appear to be less happy.
These two young men – rebels looking for a cause and acting out some hideous, grotesque fantasy – seem to be, in part at least, the product of the empty materialism that teaches prices but not values. This is not just an act of murder but an expression of moral incoherence. If that poor soldier’s death is not be another obscene waste of life and potential, we need to ask ourselves how our society comes to create that moral incoherence. When crimes go unpunished, rage and resentment grow. So, when we went to war in Iraq and it was shown to be on the basis of lies and yet the liars walk free and prosper, when bankers steal billions and barely get a slap on the wrist (type ‘scandal’ or ‘scam’ after the name of any major bank in a Google search and you find dozens of cases of fraud and theft on a monumental scale), when rich men in government tell the rest of the country to tighten their belts and education suffers cuts, is it any wonder that the moral compass of a few people spins entirely out of control?
I know I may begin to sound like Lord Longford or a well meaning, leftie bishop – but I am neither. I am a citizen who sees our civil society fraying. The collapse of Christianity in the UK, for good or ill, has left a void and, for all the failings of religion, the Biblical stories did provide some moral teaching. Absent of these lessons, we may learn our morals from the self-righteous brayings of The Sun or the raging of a zealot on a website. As citizens, we need to demand more of those who govern us, a higher moral standard, where ethics are at the heart of what we do, instead of on the fringe.
Good article. Though I think Kenan Malik should have devoted more space to shaming the left wing commentators who wish to glorify this atrocity as a political statement..an understandable if unfortunate expression of “Muslim rage”. Sure, Fox News does more than that with their pet news items, but is it too much to expect Greenwald to ease off for a few days? He and his ilk are saying “this is a response to UK foreign policy”. What if someone spent the first five days after Breivik’s massacre explaining how it was a “response to Muslim immigration” and could have been avoided if Muslims stop immigrating to Christian lands? Would that strike some people as an unacceptable attempt to profit from a terrible atrocity?
A deranged murderer can come up with whatever explanation HE thinks is justification for his action, but it is still worth it to try and make some distinction between an organized political attack (no matter how good or bad or moral or immoral) and what is a deranged act that really does not deserve to be classifed as a component of ANY political project.
As an example of a crime that IS part of an organized political effort, see 9-11. It was not the act of one or two deranged criminals, but a systematic well thought out effort carried out by an organization with clear political aims. It was a war crime, but at least it was an organized, well thought out war crime with an ideology that explains the crime. THIS deranged murder does not deserve to be included in the same register of war crimes (or heroic acts of anti-imperialist resistance).
its a fuzzy line, but its there.
I take your point about not dignifying this brutal, incoherent act of violence as a political statement of any kind. My own post makes the point that it was entirely incoherent – but these terrible events don’t come from nowhere and the wars we have been waging, with no meaningful plan of how to ‘win’ them are themselves incoherent. Violence breeds violence, immoral behaviour breeds immoral behaviour and rarely that emerges in the form of murderers justifying their brutality as these men are seeking to do.
Omar, I agree that I did not tackle the ‘this is a response to UK foreign policy’ argument here – probably because I seem to do that in virtually everything I write on this issue these days, from my book From Fatwa to Jihad, to my discussion of 9/11 on the tenth anniversary, and my piece on the Boston bombing. I disagree, however, with your point about 9/11. It was certainly well planned, organized and executed. But in political terms it was as degenerate as the Woolwich attack. I cannot see how it had ‘clear political aims’. In a sense, it is not so much 9/11 or 7/7 that throw light on the Woolwich attack, as the Woolwich attack that throws light on the real character of 9/11 and 7/7.
What you say is true, Kenan. If these attacks were ‘political’, in the sense that IRA and Palestinian terror attacks had a specific political end, then there would be a coherent manifesto from the ‘jihadists’, some points for negotiation, some specific grievances to address. The ‘creation of a new Caliphate’ or ‘death to the great Satan’ don’t even come close to political realities. This seems more to be a case of an upwelling of frustration in the face of a great bag of issues, from social and political injustice, the dramatic pace of change in the 21st Century to women’s rights and the corrupting power of popular music. Unfocussed energy looking for a cause – and these atrocious things are done that ultimately serve no realistic cause at all. They are human tragedies for the victims.
I think it’s wrongheaded to try to reduce these acts (both the Woolwich killing and the Breivik mass murder) entirely to psychology, to deny that ideology had anything to do with it–humans are creatures of ideas, and to suggest that a person cannot develop a “real” hatred of the society they live in from ideas read in books and the internet, while presumably granting that such hatred could be more “real” if it was picked up in a community of like-minded people (like IRA terrorists or Palestinian terrorists), seems to me a very simplistic view of where political anger originates (or indeed any sort of strongly-held beliefs). It’s probably true that psychologically “normal” people who were reasonably content in their lives wouldn’t be attracted to going the way of Breivik or the Woolwich killers, but I think it’s also true that such people would not be prime candidates for becoming suicidal killers even in a community that encouraged anyone to volunteer for that role.
My point is not so much about individual psychology as about the degeneration of the idea of the ‘political’. The ‘political’ cannot be reduced merely to subjective intention. It has to have some relationship to wider social movements and processes. What makes contemporary terrorism different from terrorism in the past is the disconnect from such movements and processes. An organization such as the IRA was defined by its political aims. It had an exclusive membership; its members were carefully selected and their activities tightly controlled by the leadership. The IRA saw itself as part of both a historical tradition of struggles for a united Ireland and a political struggles of national liberation movements. And however misguided we might think its actions, there was a close relationship between the aims of the organization and the actions of its members. None of this is true of contemporary terrorism. An act of terror is rarely controlled by an organisation or related to a political demand. There is no common political history or relationship between different jihadists. They are not united even by ideology, for it is impossible to know what their ideology is. All that connects them is their desire to create a spectacle and sow terror. Far from being part of a social or political movement, what defines terrorists like the Woolwich attackers (or the Boston bombers) is their very isolation from such movements.
Nihilistic narcissism and psychopathic disengagement from the suffering of their victims seem to underpin the actions of all the people you mentioned. When you contrast their actions with those of Jihadists in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Somalia, and so on where real confrontations occur their actions seem even more disjointed and bizarre. The Chechen rebels even disavowed any connection with the Boston bombers on the grounds that their quarrel was not with the USA but with the Russians who had killed many thousands of their compatriots. The 9/11 mass murderers had a very ‘western’, modern lifestyle with little real connection to Islam. In short the Woolwich guys were easily led with emotional engagement too easily dead.
Another reflection you had the chance to make was on the predictable reaction of Islamic organisations across Britain, and the majority of Muslims on Twitter, that, and to quote our great friends at the MCB, this attack has “no basis in Islam”. After every event like this they shove the same religion of peace crap down our throats, to distance themselves from the event and the people involved. But the fact is, it has everything to do with their religion. They need to man up, accept that this is the case and condemn the doctrine of jihad and make it clear that it has no place in the 21st Century.
But will they? Unlikely, how can they condemn the word of God?
But Harry, do we really serve the cause of peace and security by alienating the Muslims who are genuinely appalled by what is being done in the name of their religion? The extremists calling everyone who comes from a Christian country ‘Crusaders’ and ‘Infidels’ paint all of us with the same brush – and that is not accurate.
I’m not saying we should alienate Muslims, I’m saying they should stop defending their religion whenever something appalling is done in its name. They rightly condemn terrorists and, in this case, nutty murderers, but will they admit that Islam supports armed jihad? Apparently not. And no doubt Islam will continue to attract these psychopaths who are not making any sort of real political statement, they just welcome Islam as a platform on which to support their vicious attacks. And no doubt we will continue to have Islamic organisations dust off their last press release and throw it right back in our faces.
Then our great Christian leaders will welcome this response in the same way they always do.
And to your final point, many of us are without faith and our government did go on and invade Iraq because George fucking Bush told us to. So I think it is fair to describe us as crusaders and infidels. Our government has to take responsibility for its actions and we the people share in that responsibility. Unlike Islam which is perfect and in no way responsible for anything bad done in its name.
You ascribe (correctly?) a wide range of incidents to “brutal nihilism and narcissistic hatred”, but these labels are not particularly illuminating. I fear that no one – not you, not me, not psychiatrists, not social scientists etc – knows what causes these sorts of actions. That’s part of what makes them so frightening.
I think that Kenan’s downplaying of the link between the killing in Woolwich with British foreign policy is wrong. The attacker said that it was in response to British foreign policy in respect of Muslim countries; indeed, the spokesman for the July 2005 bombings said much the same thing. Whilst hard-line Islamism had been on the go in Britain for years before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I think that the impact of these invasions led to the focus of violent action on the part of British Islamists to move from solely abroad to the domestic arena as well.
I also feel that Kenan is wrong to downplay the political aspects of the motivation of those responsible for these atrocities. His emphasis upon nihilism dodges the question of really motivates them; it’s as if they are in the grip of some sort of teenage angst, rather than seeing themselves as part of a global movement intent upon violent actions against those deemed as responsible for a ‘war against Islam’. Yes, they are alienated, as are many other people, but few alienated youth become religious fanatics, let alone carry out such atrocities. Fundamentalist Islam seems to offer them some sort of hope, some sort of purpose: they’ve gone beyond alienation and are now armed with a creed that gives them a direction; it’s a very weird and destructive one, but it’s way beyond mere angst and alienation.
There is no way that such a form of Islam, based upon violence and fundamentalism, could ever recruit more than a handful of people in Britain (it’s a different matter in countries facing a complete or near-total social breakdown such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and quite likely soon Syria).
Nonetheless, these guys feel that they have a chance, and one way they feel they can do it is by carrying out atrocities that provoke such an angry reaction that Muslims as a whole get to be held responsible, and there’s nothing like a bit of religious persecution to get people flocking back to the basics. That we see so many media pundits and ordinary commentators alike dismissing as disingenuous and dishonest the vast bulk of Muslims in Britain who are genuinely appalled by the Woolwich killing, shows that these guys knew exactly what they were doing when they carried out their awful act.
These guys want a viciously hostile reaction; they want the far-right to attack mosques and duff-up Muslims — and Kenan is unbelievably complacent about the possibility and indeed actuality of the growth of anti-Muslim sentiments — hence the gratuitous brutality of the attack last week. It’s an old trick, and has been used effectively by violent minority movements, usually of the far-right, over the years. One hopes that it will not be successful today in Britain, but I’m not optimistic.
Paul, I have never denied that jihadists insist that they are acting in response to British foreign policy. What I am suggesting is that subjective intentions do not a political act make. As I have argued earlier in this thread, what distinguishes contemporary terrorism from, say, IRA terrorism, is its disconnect from political movements, political goals, political demands, political organization. An inchoate hatred of British foreign policy is not a political goal. There is an irony here. Critics like you – and you are not the only one – suggest that I am imputing some kind of psychological motive – ‘teenage angst’ – to terrorists. I am in fact doing the opposite – arguing that one should not reduce the political to the subjective. That, on the other hand, appears to be what you want to do.
Suppose a racist murders a black person and claims that he was striking a blow against what he considers to be Britain’s lax immigration laws. Should we take this to be a political act, and one caused by Britain’s immigration laws? I certainly wouldn’t. But nor would I see it as a matter of ‘teenage angst’. I would acknowledge the social and political context in which that act took place: the scapegoating of immigrants for Britain’s social ills, the disaffection and sense of abandonment felt within many white working class communities, etc. But placing an act in its social and political context is not the same as attributing to it a political motive. Similarly with the Woolwich murder.
In the past, disaffection with the mainstream may have led people to join movements for political change, such as anti-racist campaigns or labour movement organizations. Today such campaigns and organizations often seem to many to be as out of touch as mainstream political parties. What gives shape to contemporary disaffection is not progressive politics, as it may have done in the past, but the politics of identity. Contemporary racist populism and Islamism are both, in their different ways, expressions of social disengagement in an era of identity politics. After murdering Lee Rigby, Michael Adebolajo raged about British troops attacking ‘our lands’. What linked him to struggles in Afghanistan and Chechnya and Palestine was not a political movement but the cage of identity. The nature of contemporary identity ensured that all ‘Muslim’ lands were his, while Britain was an alien country. I will post more on this next week.
Finally, I am not being ‘complacent’ about anti-Muslim sentiment. What I am suggesting is that we should not be alarmist about it.