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.


11 thoughts on “The T-Word

  1. Baudrillard: “the media are part of the event, they are part of the terror” – The Spirit of Terror (Verso). This is why he says that every event is always already an image-event.

    And if you want to see the way in which the media are part of the terror, then take a look at today’s front pages (with the exception, perhaps, of the Independent).

    Out of interest, what do you suppose the difference is between an act of terrorism and a hate crime?

  2. Since the article mentions Zygmunt Bauman and comparative media coverage has been raised below the line, how about this:

    In Collateral Damage Bauman argues that the state has lost control over markets and that its only role today is to offer public safety to its citizens. In order to look effective in this it ramps up threat levels – for example, by over-emphasising the potential for or imminence of terrorist attacks – which at the same time acts to distract the population from the real risk wrought by the free reign of the market.

    One of the interesting results of the social media coverage of the Woolwich event was that, after the EDL converged on the scene, the French energy company EDF started to receive confused tweets accusing it of escalating the situation.

    That’s EDF, which is state-owned in France but was nonetheless allowed to be in a position to buy up UK energy contracts when the industry was privatised. As such, and as James Meek argues in the LRB, energy supply in the UK becomes precarious, moves to sustainable sources are at the whim of a trans-national company, and efficiency has decreased as cost has increased.

    Losing controling of our energy supply because of a neoliberal agenda therefore puts us at risk in three ways: if in the future resources become scarce, the switch to our supply is in the hands of a company owned by another nation; guarding against this scarcity and ecological disaster is taken out of this nation’s (and its electorate’s) hands; and, of course, the soaring cost of energy could lead vulnerable households to impoverishment.

    But isolated slayings packaged as terror are far scarier.

    Meek’s article is free to access here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n17/james-meek/how-we-happened-to-sell-off-our-electricity

  3. “Coverage is so selective that the media in effect create a disaster when they recognise it…” – Stanley Cohen, ‘States of Denial’

  4. The conclusion this article comes to is based on heavy bias, the author’s personal prejudice, is poorly researched and badly constructed. It seems as though the author at very least is indifferent to the yesterday’s murder, and does seem to imply that it was justified by highlighting atrocities committed by soldiers and and the use of UAV’s in the war.

    To rush to their defense in what you see as unfair racial or religious stereotyping is very revealing indeed. I’m curious how would be responding to this if these men had been crying out in the name of Jesus or Shiva. Unlike you, the Muslim community itself has publicly condemned the actions of the two individuals involved and have made it very clear that they consider what happened to be criminal. The attackers have not yet claimed to be jihadists or to have affiliation with any known group. That being said, it does NOT mean that these men weren’t using intimidation or terrorist tactics to further their own agendas.

    Though there is no recognized general consensus on a global definition for what an act of terrorism is, in Great Britain it was defined in 2000 as;

    “The use or threat of action designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation or to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; and it involves or causes:

    serious violence against a person;
    serious damage to a property;
    a threat to a person’s life;
    a serious risk to the health and safety of the public; or
    serious interference with or disruption to an electronic system.”

    An unprovoked attack on an unarmed man in broad daylight, performed in such a violent and shocking manner could probably fall into one or more of these criteria when combined with the fact that the suspects in question (a.) used excessive violence to carry out the murder, thus causing extreme distress to witnesses. (b.) stood around waiting for the police, talking to witnesses about their motivations, (c.) knew that they’re actions would immediately grab headlines and the attention of the country and world (and so, one could infer that they wanted to be as public and savage as possible to gain the maximum amount of attention and effect they could). and lastly (d.) at one point one of the men even says,

    “You people will never be safe, remove your government, they don’t care about you”.

    Seems like he had some sort of ulterior motive, does it not?

    The fact of the matter is, the religious or racial background of these men are irrelevant. What they did yesterday was done in the spirit of terror, to inflict terror, to make a statement and to gain the attention of the world wide press. To even attempt to say otherwise is either naive or frankly dismissive of the value of human life. It disgusts me that many politicians, groups like the EDL and ignorant members of the public peanut gallery like “esjaybe” are so quick to jump to the defense of one group and condemn another without a second thought. Are you all really so blind? People all over the world do evil things to other people every single day. Blaming any group for the actions of individuals overlooks the true heart of the problem, which is that humans are capable of great evil all on their own, we all just like to have a convenient justification to do so.

    Get off your soap box and pray to gain some humility and wisdom. Stop getting so (wrongly) self righteous and outraged. Nothing in this world will get better as long as people think they are morally superior to the rest of the world and keep spewing hateful venom on the people we disagree with

    • A fascinating comment ‘wake up and smell the coffee, people’ – thank you very much for your input. I’ll do my best to respond to the points you make.

      “the conclusion this article comes to is based on heavy bias”
      – well, yes I hope it is. this is a comment piece on my own argument towards yesterday’s event. if it had no bias I think it would be incredibly dull.

      “seem to imply that it was justified”
      – it’s a shame you feel that this was my argument, and if that’s the impression you got then this is my own fault for not being clear enough. I have often been told that I have been too subtle in the past when writing on here, but I hoped that my use of adjectives such as ‘gruesome’ and ‘shocking’ would demonstrate that I consider all such crimes as abhorrent – whether in London or Baghdad.

      As for your citation of a legal definition of ‘terrorism’ in this country. I firstly don’t actually think that it contradicts what I argued in the article: when it says ‘to intimidate the public, or a section of the public; made for the purposes of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; and it involves or causes’ this is what I meant by the attackers not becoming terrorists until the moment they have spread ‘terror’ (i.e. it has been broadcasted and is able to actually intimidate the wider public).
      Secondly, my overall point was that such definitions of ‘terrorism’ serve certain power relationships so I would be wholly sceptical of any governmental definition anyway.

      “Seems like he had some sort of ulterior motive, does it not?”
      – well, yes (don’t I say as much?) my point however was that this in itself did not make it an act of terrorism. as I say above, only when it has been broadcasted to intimidate the wider public does this become so. this is why the government’s quick move towards defining it as terrorism is so worrying, because it reflects their agenda to use the word as a discourse to justify their legitimacy of power.

      “Nothing in this world will get better as long as people think they are morally superior to the rest of the world and keep spewing hateful venom on the people we disagree with”
      – I wonder if you apply this to yourself in your disagreement of my argument? Was it necessary to accuse me of being arrogant or the readers of my blog as being ‘public peanuts’?

      I look forward to reading your response (I’d also like more clarification on your own stance towards the attacks if possible?)

  5. I think even just writing a blog post like this is giving these (probably mentally unstable) individuals (note, I am not affiliating them with any group here) yet another media platform they don’t deserve. I could go out and take part in protests everyday and I would NEVER create even an iota of the impact that they have – which is precisely why the media is walking a very fine line between reporting on events, and inciting hate, portraying mindless acts of violence (which I feel this was, the political ‘speech’ he gives hardly has a coherent message to it – which is why there has been such vast speculation on what the motive might be) as commonplace, and exacerbating the fear that UKIP and the Tories love to play upon: our fear of the other, of things we don’t understand, of the non-British.

    It brings to my mind a stabbing that took place in Birmingham. It was a hot day and loads of people was sunbathing in a city square – a man stabbed a 15 year old to death in front of everybody. It was horrific and there was indeed media coverage of it, but it wasn’t ramped up and politicised in this way. Perhaps because the understanding was that mental illness, though stigmatised, can not be played off as some kind of looming threat to society. It was just a one-off freak event, which I suspect this will also be.

  6. Triona, interesting comparison with the incident in Birmingham.

    Regarding the dissemination of terrorism via the media, it is perhaps interesting to consider where the boundaries lie between providing a platform for terrorism, freedom of speech, freedom of information and the facilitation of public debate. Perhaps these boundaries lie in the subtleties of how such an incident is portrayed? Is it more powerful for media to ignore or condemn such events? Perhaps there are simply too many people who willingly ‘buy’ fear from their newspapers or blogs, and that it is these consumers who are also complicit in creating a demand for (or at least a profitability in) discourses of terrorism? Does the blame lie in supply or demand?

    As for the point at which an act of violence becomes an act of terrorism, perhaps we as the public in a democracy are too complacent in allowing authorities that we supposedly mistrust to determine this for us, according to their own agendas? In which case, good job Esjaybe for bringing critique of this to the table.

    • Thank you curious_species for a great comment. You make a great point of course, what are the actual mechanisms in which the event is ‘broadcast’? Why is the (supposedly impartial) BBC using a discourse that insinuates that attack is terrorist because the assailants are Muslim?

      It also calls forward that age old question on most of my writing: ‘well yes, congratulations for pointing out the problem, but how else would you have it?’ and while I don’t think this should limit investigation or stop points being made, I also think in this case you make a strong argument for considering the implications for free speech. While the article was less on this aspect (and more on the definition of terrorism as a powerful tool) the materiality of how the event becomes broadcasted is clearly important.

  7. Pingback: Why Liberals Love To Hate The Daily Mail | EsJayBe

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