Saturday, 25 May 2013

Terrorism and the Sensationalism of Crime

It is unsurprising that, following coverage of Wednesday's seemingly unprovoked attack in Woolwich which resulted in the death of a young soldier, the country is in a state of uproar. Despite the fact that this incident only happened on Wednesday, it seems that the nation is already in possession of 'all the facts', with both local and national media footage of the aftermath of the incident and proclamations by the same of this being an act of terrorism; a view, it would seem, that is shared by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary. Witnesses were being interviewed almost immediately, not just by the police but by local radio stations and the national media. I heard this morning a lady giving an account to the radio host of how she approached one of the suspects whose hands were bloody and who was carrying a 'machete'. She attempted to find out what had happened and tried to convince the man to hand over 'what was in his hand'. Indeed, lying next to my laptop is a copy of Thursday's 'The Times' which, on the front page, pictures one of the suspects with bloodied hands carrying a meat cleaver. In the background, we see the young soldier lying near the middle of the road with a number of onlookers close by. The headline reads 'Soldier hacked to death in London terror attack' with the lead paragraph stating 'A soldier was hacked to death on a street in London yesterday in an Islamist terrorist attack'. The main article (on pages 6 and 7) goes into greater detail, providing further pictures and quotes from the suspects and some of the witnesses. Last night, the young soldier was named and a statement from his family was read out.

There are a number of things that could be said about what has happened so far as regards the investigation of this matter and the way in which it has been handled both by the media, the government and the security services. However, the focus of this brief post is on the way in which this incident has been classified as an act of terrorism and why I consider that to be an irresponsible and potentially inaccurate way to deal with the matter; the repercussions of which could be, and I would in fact suggest already have been, considerable.

First and foremost, murder is a crime. It is an offence which has been known to the common law for many years. Sadly, it is committed all too often with terrible repercussions not just for the victim but for the families and society as a whole. Murder is not, however, synonymous with terrorism. Sometimes, it is true, the two go hand in hand but most acts of murder which are committed in the UK have nothing whatsoever to do with 'terrorism' in the sense in which the word is widely used. When looking at whether an act of murder is also an act of terrorism, the critical feature is often considered to be the reason behind the murder, i.e. the motive. Why was this person (or people) killed? It may very well be the case (and some may argue demonstrably so given the footage that has been shown repeatedly by the press) that Wednesday's killing was motivated by some misguided politico-religious belief. It may well be accurate to describe it as 'an act of terror'. However, here is why I suggest horrific acts such as these should not be so classified:

1. The offence of murder, carrying with it a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment upon conviction, is a crime. It does not require to be labelled as a terrorist act in order to make it so;

2. Let us assume that an individual commits a killing which is said to be in the name of religion or political belief. He does so because he wishes to make a statement. He wants the publicity and, quite often, is prepared to die in support of his cause. By seizing upon the incident, as the press and some members of the government have done in Wednesday's case, as an act of terrorism, the killer achieves his purpose. He has killed, his message has been delivered (in this case globally) and others, perhaps, are motivated to act in a like-minded way.

3. A national panic ensues. When a murder is reported, people completely unconnected with the case and the deceased often feel upset. They feel upset because they recognise the horrific nature of the crime, they empathise/sympathise with the friends and family of the victim, and they want to see justice for the crime that has been committed. However, when a murder is described as an act of terrorism, whilst people may go through the same emotions as described above, the overwhelming sense is one of fear. They worry about what will happen next. Will there be further attacks? If so, when? Where? What form will they take? Whilst there is nothing wrong with a vigilant society, achieving vigilance through fear is not the way forward.

4. Reprisals. After Wednesday's killing, the English Defence League were out in force with reports that they threw bottles at police. In addition, mosques were attacked with arrests having been made for racially aggravated criminal damage, possession of an offensive weapon and attempted arson. These are just the reported matters. It goes without saying, although is worth noting, that these 'reprisals' are not against the suspects (who are both in hospital having been shot by police) but are against innocent people, including the police.

5. Religion and Culture. Attacks such as Wednesday's, widely reported as having been committed 'in the name of religion', deepen cultural and religious divisions. The ill-informed condemn Islam and, as noted above, sometimes go as far as to physically attack religious buildings. The Muslim Council of Britain feel obliged to make a statement to the press condemning the attack fearing, no doubt, that if they remain silent they will somehow be considered complicit. A caller to LBC Radio who identified himself as a 'black Muslim' stated that he felt frightened after what had happened for fear of a backlash against Muslims in general, a sentiment expressed by others according to the BBC.

No doubt there will be a lot more to come about this horrific incident, particularly in relation to what the security services already knew about these two men. At some point, after the press, the government and the general public have already determined what happened and why, and the men are out of hospital, the matter will finally get to Court.

I would not wish to leave this post without congratulating Boris Johnson, a man whom I have never before said a positive word about. However, in an interview, he commented as follows:

"This is not a question now of blaming the religion of Islam, it is certainly not a question of blaming any aspect of British foreign policy or what our troops do in operations abroad when they risk their lives...the fault for this lies exclusively, wholly and entirely in the minds of those who were responsible for this crime and they are going to be brought to justice."

Quite so.

One final thought. Nothing in this brief post suggests that a single act of murder, committed in circumstances such as Wednesday's attack, cannot necessarily be characterised as an act of terrorism. The question is whether it is right to do so and what the consequences of doing so may be.

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