Woolwich: When Knife Crime Became Terrorism

The Woolwich killing has amounted to a “terror” attack, a designation that was as impulsive as it was irresponsible.


Drummer Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, who was killed in Woolwich in May 2013. Credit: Wikipedia

It all seemed like a standard act of spectacular violence, a brutally executed endeavor which left a man dead, hacked and bleeding before the vulture like gaze of social media. The individual who died in the attack was drummer Lee Rigby, wearing a shirt for a soldier’s charity.

The assailants very mindful of the theatrical nature of their performance as it took place on John Wilson Street in Woolwich, London. They “were oblivious to anything, they were more worried about having their photo taken, running up and down the road.

All of this has amounted to a “terror” attack, a designation that was as impulsive as it was irresponsible. The British Prime Minister David Cameron certainly stole a march on the police in this regard, letting the press know ahead of time that Britain, bold and proud, would not be cowed by the act. “We have suffered these attacks before, we have always beaten them back.  We will not be cowed, we will never buckle.”

An entire machinery was mobilized to net, not merely the men concerned at the scene – Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale – but a vast “conspiracy” that has not, as yet, been uncovered. Meetings of COBRA, the government’s national emergency committee, were convened specifically to discuss the stabbing.  But so far, the security forces found no “chatter” suggesting a plot to kill Rigby, suggesting they were on the fringe of militancy.

This was in stark contrast to the position of President Barack Obama, who resisted using the term on the day the Boston bombings took place.

Obama decided the following day that, “Any time bombs are used to target civilians, it is an act of terrorism.” Evidently, he wanted to hedge his bets.

The entire shaping of this event is now dependent on finding a terrorist plot. MI5 has been roped in, with a firm eye focused on whether they should have known whether the suspected Woolwich killers posed a grave security risk. The Intelligence and Security Committee, made up of MPs and peers, will investigate the files pertinent to the case, though the public can hardly hope to get a full viewing of the findings, as they tend to be redacted on release.

Brendan O’Neill, writing for Spiked, added some clarity to the muddled debate when he claimed that “we witnessed 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.”

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The ubiquitous presence of social media provides images without initial processing. This is raw data without context – a person being brutally slain to live coverage is more likely to be treated as a victim of terror than a victim of a hideous crime. The fact that several similar incidents might be happening in the vicinity, either simultaneously or prior, is considered irrelevant – they, after all, weren’t filmed. Those unobserved killings tend to slide into the realm of statistics and crime prevention. London is no stranger to homicide by knifing.

Nor does the field of terrorism studies supply any useful definition to help us. Those cutting their teeth in the field of terrorism studies have much to answer for, having created, effectively, an industry of sorts that demands treating law and order problems as matters of “terror.” By the FBI’s own understanding, there is no “standard, accepted definition of terrorism.” One is offered by Laura Beth Nielsen, director of Legal Studies at Northwestern University. “The most obvious definition is that terrorism is a crime meant to terrorise.”

But more is needed – a political component perhaps, or by the FBI’s own definition, “the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (28 CFR s. 0.85).

What we are bearing witness to is a broadening of its use. Like the question “What is art?”, a broad inquiry that leads to the answer of “all and sundry,” we are at risk of dealing with the most localized act of brutality as terrorist phenomena. All violence, effectively, risks being bracketed as terrorism.

In the United States, we see a version of this aberration – an individual might well be charged with using a weapon of mass destruction, as the alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been – even if it so happens to be a pressure cooker. Precision in law enforcement is being abandoned in favor of blanket concepts of security.

Language matters. The use of the term “terrorism” risks throwing the baby of definitions with the bath water of relevance. The killing in Woolwich is an all too stark reminder about that fact, and it must be stayed. Unfortunately, those responsible for that task have neglected it and risk, as O’Neill suggests, morally colluding with alleged acts of terror by completing its effects.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.