At which point did the horrific events in Woolwich become an act of terrorism?
When the attack first takes place, eyewitnesses perceive it as a car accident and that the men were attempting to give some sort of CPR to the soldier so this is not yet terrorism. However, even when it turns out that they are in fact killing him, this doesn’t make it ‘terrorism’ either but a gruesome and shocking daylight murder.
However, when we discover the men are Muslim, that they are shouting the name of ‘Allah’ as they attack the man, a discourse begins. Was this a religious-ideological attack on the part of the individuals? In which case, is this now an act of terrorism? Well no, it isn’t, and any narrative that carries that argument is simply one of racism (including, might I add, the BBC journalist ‘on the scene’ last night who actually used the words: ‘this appears to be a terrorist attack, the men were shouting ‘allahu akbar’ as they attacked the victim’…)
An act of terrorism (as I attempted to argue in my last post on ’24‘) is ideologically motivated, yes, but with the intention to cause widespread terror in a population on behalf of that cause; not only an attack on an individual. When the men are shouting ‘Allah’ on a street, this has not yet become a performance to cause wider terror (except to those physically witnessing the event) and therefore we cannot yet call it an act of terrorism. All that this discourse reveals is that we assume anyone with a belief other than ours – or indeed, a belief in anything – must have the intention to cause widespread terror. This is not an act of terrorism simply because the attackers were Muslim.
In fact, I argue, the murder did not actually begin to become a terrorist act until it had actually been filmed and broadcasted. As the men stay on the scene there is a bizarre hyperreal twist in the story (which speaks volumes about our age of social media) in which one assailant gets people on a bus to begin filming the event. At one point, he even approaches an eyewitness who is filming the incident on the street and begins saying his piece, thereby performing the act to a wider audience and beginning to spread terror. This is perhaps an unexpected characteristic of Bauman’s ‘confessional society’ where we feel like we must participate and perform to the world through social media: the murder doesn’t actually become registered until it has been recorded and confessed through such channels. The men didn’t even need to film a ‘Bin Laden-style’ video before hand, they knew it would be captured immediately by the many electronic witnesses on the streets.
The chilling fact of the matter is that the man in the video may actually have a point in comparing the attack with those that British troops perform in other nations (although, of course, ‘we’ would never want to admit that the other had a legitimate cause). This happens on a day to day basis in other countries but has become a regular, mundane and now ignored part of our news discourse (yet another car bomb, yet another soldier acting indecently, yet another video of masked insurgents threatening the invadors). But do you remember the more extreme stories? For example, do you remember this story of a British soldier stabbing an Afghan boy in 2010 or the fact that recently ‘we’ have begun to cowardly get robot drones to do the killing for ‘us’.
What truly defines Woolwich as an act of ‘terrorism’ (rather than those events abroad) is actually the moment when PM Cameron and Home Secretary May begin to label it as such on the evening news – or arrange emergency meetings (ceremonies?) of COBRA to formally register the attack as terrorism – and this is very disturbing. The murder in London becomes an ideological tool in attempting to consolidate the ‘British’ into one nation, an attempt to bring the country into line with the Tory agenda (the ‘Falkland’ effect?) by perpetuating a racism which allows the government to appear stronger, assertive and the sole protectors of our safety (biopolitics).
That the attackers appear to be just as ‘British’ as the EDL group which quickly went down to Woolwich and ran at the Police on scene is not even considered (the fact that the soldier was wearing a help the heroes tee-shirt giving perfect fodder for such a mindless response). The racist discourse which is played upon so inconsideratly by the Tories only demonstrates further the pressure they feel under from UKIP to swing further right in turbulent political times and applying the discourse of terrorism to such an ambiguous action as yesterday is a deeply ideological action.
‘Terrorism’ is used as a buzz word to create panic and to legitimise the power of those up top and its only by disregarding their ideological use of this signifier as incorrect that we begin to break free from a most powerful tool of government: the fear of the other.