The Woolwich murder: time for solidarity not demonisation

A week ago a British soldier, Lee Rigby, was murdered in Woolwich, in southeast London. His murderers (subject to due process of law…) were two British black Muslim converts, who had taken up Jihadist views. Their methods were as low tech as possible, and they were happy to be caught, though they may have wanted to be killed by police snipers. For them the point was publicity. In this they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. The story was promoted massively by all media outlets, and it is still getting a lot of coverage – quite out of proportion to other deaths, of civilians in London, or of soldiers on active service. The whole episode has stirred passions, and the results are disturbing.

At first I tried to retain a sense of proportion on the affair. It was pretty horrid, but more a random act of violence than a systemic threat to our way of life. But I seem to have missed something; the episode has hit Britain’s pressured working classes in a sore spot. For reasons that future historians will debate, soldiers have become a working class icon here in Britain (and perhaps the US as well). Their travails in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to symbolise the general pressures that working class people face: sent to fight wars nobody understands, and generally let down by the elites that sent them there. They are referred to as heroes.

This seems very different to the ways soldiers used to be regarded. The heroism is based on the dangers that the soldiers face and the endurance they show, not on the number of enemy that they kill. There was a bit of embarrassment when Prince Harry, after serving in Afghanistan, confessed that his actions would have killed people. Soldiering is about meting out violence; but we don’t really talk about that aspect of their work. There are occasional efforts to demonise the enemy, but it all turns out to be a bit complicated when many of your local allies appear little better. It is perhaps interesting that I don’t remember anything like this public regard for British soldiers serving in Northern Ireland, though I do remember having those feelings myself. The violence they inflicted on people that looked very like us, with some inevitable innocents, was altogether more visible, and made people feel uncomfortable.

Be that as it may, the target of last week’s attack could not have symbolised the working class icon better. And the reaction has been anger. The nasty islamophobic English defence League (EDL) has seen its popularity rocket. Attacks and threats on Muslims have soared. This seems to be a mainly working class phenomenon, though middle class prejudices are perfectly visible too, judging by the odd Facebook comment.

This is very depressing. The demonisation of Muslims and the Islamic religion is grossly unjust. All it can do is push more young British Muslims, suffering similar working class pressures, into extreme views. But demonising the EDL’s supporter doesn’t help either, and quickly takes on an air of class prejudice.

The fact is that most of British working classes, of all colours and races, are under pressure. Technology is killing traditional working class jobs and pressuring wages; housing costs, at least in places where there are jobs, are steadily rising. Benefit and public service cuts add to the pressure: though their effect on the working classes as a whole is complex – resentment at people living on benefit runs high amongst working class people. The education system often lets them down.

There are no easy answers. Stoking up a sense of victimhood, and throwing in the odd benefit or tax credit entitlement, is a road to nowhere, though advocated by many Labour politicians. By and large we need people to take more control of their lives and education, not blame everybody else when things go sour. The education system is slowly being fixed, though not all the government’s ideas are helpful. We need more social housing in the southeast, building on greenbelts if necessary. That’s hard and the government is doing much too little, though I don’t hear much convincing or constructive coming out of the Labour side either.

But it helps to understand and to listen. About the only shaft of light to emerge over the last week was an act of reconciliation made by a mosque in York to EDL protestors. Tea and biscuits made the headlines, but the real progress was made when the two sides got into dialogue and discovered their shared interests. Too many people advocate intolerance and confrontation (“standing up for what you believe in”), which only promotes misunderstanding and division. What is needed is true working class solidarity across race and religion to press for changes that will improve life in all our pressured communities.

Sometimes things just don’t make sense

It is one of the most enduring human characteristics to try and see patterns in the world around us.  We don’t like the idea of random events.  People even pore over lottery numbers.

After the awful events in Norway last week, it is only natural that people try to make sense of them.  The most common is that it is part of the rise in right-wing hate politics – for example Timothy Egan in the New York Times or Matthew Feldman in the Independent.  A more original alternative, from Joan Smith, also in the Independent, is that it is part of frustrated male pride, with parallels in the British 7/7 bombers.

But I don’t think any of this helps.  Of course people who think we should do more about the extreme right will use this event to bolster their case.  And the extremists themselves may also do so, on the grounds that this act shows just how desperate things are getting.  Frustrated macho pride was clearly part of the toxic mix, but this afflicts most of the male population.  The more I find out about Anders Behring Brehvik, the more I think his lawyer is closer to the mark by describing him as “mad”.

I am no psychologist, but I don’t think Brehvik fits the normal description of insanity.  But he does seem to have something that the professionals call a “personality disorder”.  He seems to have real difficulty in socialising.  He acted alone, almost certainly, when most terrorist acts are collaborations, like the 7/7 bombings, with people encouraging each other on.  He read widely, and took inspiration from a lot of different sources, but he doesn’t seem to have tried harden his ideas through proper discussion and argument with anybody else.  They are a very flaky agglomeration of fantasies.  The idea of a cultural war between the West and Islam has many followers, but allying with mumbo-jumbo of the Knights Templar?  Describing himself as Christian without any reference to what that actually means?

It is nonsense.  If he hadn’t picked up on these ideas, something else might have done.  Anarchism, perhaps.  The closest parallel is the US Unabomber, another unconnected loner.  We can try too hard to find patterns.  Sometimes the only way to understand something is to say that it is senseless.  The random act of a madman.