Thursday, 23 May 2013

Woolwich killing - asking the hard, human questions

A man, a soldier, is brutally murdered on a Woolwich street. Politicians rush to emergency meetings. Reporters survey the scene, run 'terror warning' front pages and ask how such an atrocity 'could ever happen here'.
Yet, beyond the standard political condemnation and media 'examination', what more humanitarian thoughts and questions might be invoked over this horrific death?
The first compassionate thought should always be with the immediate victim, the person or persons killed, the life taken. That means all persons killed, all life taken, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or on 'our' streets.
The next thought, equally human, but of more compassionate purpose, should be to ask ourselves why these kind of violent attacks are happening. Is it enough, or even useful, just to feel appalled by such violence? Is it remotely helpful just to condemn? Or is it more productive and humanitarian to ask what compels or encourages it?
An ITN report on the killing noted: "A British soldier killed not in war, but at home" - war, presumably for such journalists, being something that can be visited upon others, in their countries, but not here in 'ours'.   
Yet, are we really to believe that lands can be illegally invaded, their resources stolen, their people slaughtered, and that others, 'homegrown' or otherwise, will not react, often violently, to those appalling situations?
Ex-soldier turned anti-war campaigner Joe Glenton is in no doubt:
"So at the very outset, and before the rising tide of prejudice and pseudo-patriotism fully encloses us, let us be clear: while nothing can justify the savage killing in Woolwich yesterday of a man since confirmed to have been a serving British soldier, it should not be hard to explain why the murder happened. [...] It should by now be self-evident that by attacking Muslims overseas, you will occasionally spawn twisted and, as we saw yesterday, even murderous hatred at home. We need to recognise that, given the continued role our government has chosen to play in the US imperial project in the Middle East, we are lucky that these attacks are so few and far between."
As we advance that line of enquiry, further humanitarian questions occur: why was this killing announced, particularly, as a "terrorist" attack? What makes an attack on a soldier or a civilian here different from a soldier attacking and killing either a combatant or a civilian in Afghanistan?
As Glenn Greenwald asks:
How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners? Can that be done? [...]The reason it's so crucial to ask this question is that there are few terms - if there are any - that pack the political, cultural and emotional punch that "terrorism" provides. When it comes to the actions of western governments, it is a conversation-stopper, justifying virtually anything those governments want to do. It's a term that is used to start wars, engage in sustained military action, send people to prison for decades or life, to target suspects for due-process-free execution, shield government actions behind a wall of secrecy, and instantly shape public perceptions around the world.
In essence, is state killing not terrorism? Are people not terrorised, terrified, by helicopter gunships? Is the killing of a person in this way any more or less gruesome than the obliteration of an Afghan child with an F-16 missile? Is a 'surgical strike' any more palatable than a surgical hacking? Would the bloody outcomes of Nato strikes ever appear so graphically on front pages the way they have for the Woolwich killing?
Having dutifully repeated what official sources had briefed as a 'terrorist' attack, the BBC's  Nick Robinson later tweeted: "To those offended by my describing the attacker as of "Muslim appearance" - I was directly quoting a Whitehall source quoting the police."
Robinson later apologised for the remark. Yet, alongside the insistence on a 'terrorist' crime, here, unwittingly revealed, was a consensually-loaded interpretation from police, government and the BBC.
What, does a Muslim supposedly 'look like'? Is it conceivable that any of these institutions would ever speak of an alleged attacker as being of 'Christian appearance' or 'Jewish appearance'?
Besides the 'incriminating look', various suggestions have been made about the questionable sanity of those who carried out this attack.  Yet, why is this question confined to such assailants? 
As Arundhati Roy notes, while Obama goes about his family life, he is ordering drone strikes that terminate other families' very existence.
Noting the public appearance of leaders like Blair and Obama, Roy describes their acts of war and violence as "psychopathic", observations that invite us to think about what separates 'respectable' appearance from true and disturbing intent. 

Watching the fawning media treatment still enjoyed by Blair, the issue is not just whether his actions may be psychopathic. It's that the very suggestion of such a question is not even up for reasonable discussion, even in the liberal media.  

While the precise psychiatry of people like Obama and Blair may be open to conjecture, what's certainly evident is their willingness to execute decisions that would in any other set of circumstances, like Woolwich, be deemed criminally psychotic in their ruthless disregard for other human beings.
The killers at Woolwich had visible blood on their hands. But Blair, Obama, Cameron and others have much, much more of it on theirs, even if it's unseen.
And so, a deeper question arises: watching Obama with his wife and kids, seeing him at the ball game, visiting victims of gun crime or natural disasters, how can we find it in ourselves to castigate such 'just like us' people?
Why do we so readily condemn one act of terrible killing, but not those who perpetrate horrific multiple others? Is it simply because the latter don't actually pull the trigger, fire the missile or release the bomb? 
Besides the actual absence of balanced news and information exposing our governments' crimes, the psychology of mass propaganda plays upon a very basic emotionalism, encouraging a deep human reluctance to see those 'close' to us as murderous or clinically suspect.
Even now, ten years on from the decision that led to mass slaughter in Iraq, how readily might we really imagine, or wish to see, Blair jailed for high war crimes? Why is that possibility still beyond much of the public's comprehension? And why, with all their mass criminality, are leaders like Cameron still permitted to claim such 'moral authority', from calling for 'more benign intervention' in Syria to denouncing the Woolwich killers?   
And remember too that those Western leaders of 'benign appearance' are the very same ones ready to support and fund those of 'Muslim appearance' and jihadi intent in Syria, just as they once expediently backed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.
The public may readily rationalise all this by saying 'well, politicians have a job to do, often an unenviable one'. But the basic question remains: why are those like the Woolwich killers denounced as evil and insane, terrorist and extremist, fanatical and deranged, while powerful mass killers are treated with blanket deference and respect?
 As that most salient book title asks: Why Are We the Good Guys?
It's of considerable significance why power and a service media will always pose the easiest questions, while evading the most difficult.
The easiest question to answer here is why those men at Woolwich and others have committed such crimes. However mistaken in their response, and however personally responsible, it's because they see violence as way of expressing political grievances and just retribution against oppressor forces.  
The harder and more useful question to pose, yet the one consistently avoided, is why those like Obama and Cameron continue to kill so criminally and mercilessly around the globe.
One may assume that such figures see killing as part of their 'office duty', caught up as they are in a world of profit-driven economies, neoliberal demands and insatiable militarism. That, by any decent moral compass, all seems pathological. Yet none of their violence or the forces behind all that are up for serious political or media discussion.    
And the further key question is how people come to see one such instance of killing as evil terrorism, while the other is accepted as respectable and sane. Again, this question is rigidly avoided by a media unwilling to examine its own culpability in feeding that distortion, thus validating more Western warmongering and creating the very conditions for violent reaction.

Until those hard, humanitarian questions are not only asked but seriously addressed, the calamity of Western state violence will continue, and the kind of responsive violence we've seen in Woolwich will surely follow on.


Dekoboko said...

We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.
Greek slave & fable author (620 BC - 560 BC)

Anonymous said...

Great post John

i fear the initial reaction by the Media, authorities, and politicians will have had immediate, and intentional effect with regards the masses, One thing that still always Shocks me, is how well the powers that be, have things all sewn up especially with regards the MSM,

Anonymous said...

Well said.

John Hilley said...

Thanks, all.

And what a most apposite saying, Dekoboko.


Maukh said...

"And the further key question is how people come to see one such instance of killing as evil terrorism, while the other is accepted as respectable and sane. "

Could it be that human lives do not hold equal value in the eyes of other humans. We are compromised by our own demographics and ingrained tribal mentality that exists in all of us. There is always an US and THEM. Anything that doesn't fit this narrative is rejected, almost subconsciously, so even before it reaches the editor of a newspaper, the metanarrative demands that we frame it as such.

John Hilley said...

Thanks for those thoughtful comments, Maukh.

It's understandable that we relate to those and things in closest proximity, that which feels familiar, like immediate family, friends and what we loosely regard as 'community'. People are, for the large part, caught up in their own domestic and localised situations.

And yet, why should that necessarily translate into an 'us and them' type consciousness? Why should it preclude care, consideration and human identification with those in other places, of different skins of alternative religions or none?

Could it be, in even larger part, that we're conditioned into seeing and disparaging, even hating, the 'other' by institutions and forces that, contrary to our 'basic nature', are driven by selfish, individualistic motives?

Alas, in many eyes, human life most certainly doesn't hold equal value. But, again, isn't this deeply encouraged by the kind of political and media blanket about the importance of 'our' soldiers and 'our streets' rather than the product of any inbuilt 'tribal mentality'?

The prioritisation of 'ours' is already understood by most journalists, and any alternative to that narrative must, indeed, be suppressed, and will be self-moderated, before it ever reaches any editor.

All of which points to the vital need for much more independent media in promotion of a humanitarian consciousness that cuts through the artifice of 'us and them'.


Anonymous said...

There has now been a petrol bomb attack on a mosque in Bletchley, Milton Keynes - could this be related to the Woolwich killing?

EddTheRed said...

You can't have a war on terror when war IS terror; and you cannot reduce the number of terrorists by killing civilians.

Rose said...

Powerful post John - thanks.
As you say, certain questions are never posed; eg Why is there never any serious debate around how our taxes are spent?

We are constantly told there is no money for health, education or a decent criminal justice service, and yet there is always money for foreign wars and expensive military hardware.

Our neck of the woods is constantly subjected to screaming low-flying aircraft on "exercises".I understand it costs thousands to put one of these things in the air in fuel alone; why is the morality of that never debated?

Schools are constantly appealing for money to buy equipment which all right-thinking parents expect to be provided by their taxes.

I was appalled by the latest begging letter from my grand-children's school for money to support a local hospice; what was sickening to me was that it was in the guise of a sponsor sheet. Each child was "encouraged" to perform certain tasks for which they were to be paid - by the parents of course. That the tasks themselves were risible - not to drop litter, listening to my teacher,making my bed - was not the worst aspect of this: it was the blatant emotional blackmail employed - which parent would want to be seen as someone not supporting an opportunity for their child to think of others?

I have a better idea: why don't we fund hospices as a matter of course with tax-payers' money and make the buying of a nuclear sub or the latest "must-have" in drone warfare into a charity to be funded according to how successful the corporate PR crowd are in selling it? Then we'll see which way the wind blows.

Unknown said...

What exactly did Nick Robinson (of Jewish appearance) say about these perpetrators?

John Hilley said...

Nick Robinson's statement here:

His "appearance" has no bearing on the matter.


John Hilley said...

Thanks, Rose.

Yes, as Wilde said, they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Whatever the austerity, there's always plenty of money available for killing people.

The economy of death, all in the 'national interest':


Anonymous said...

dear john,i am a muslim man of 60+years living in uk for last 40 years.i work as a the last decade i have seen the establishments across most of the world create (war on terror). there is syestamatic devestation and murder of countless of children,man and women in places like afghanistan iraq etc,in the name of democracey and saving (western civilization)from (radical islam).this unjust war it seems has made most people and the instiutions insane in there hatred towards muslims and islam.reading your comments on wollwich incident ,shows that there are souls like you who are like bright shinging stars in this dark occident.may you long continue to shine.

John Hilley said...

Dear friend, my deepest thanks for those most kind, moving and compassionate words.

One can only hope for greater awareness and rejection of the violence being perpetrated in the name of 'liberation' in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere.

Violence resolves precisely nothing. If only more people could see that the mass violence waged on people in 'far-off' places is not only criminal and wrong, but ever-likely to spawn responsive and mistaken violence.

Peace, kindness and best wishes to you.


Michael Stephenson said...

Thoughtful post as always John

John Hilley said...

Thanks, Michael.

John Hilley said...

Lindsey German from Stop the War Coalition with a fine rebuttal of claims made by Guardian's Jonathan Freedland:

Jerry Pepin said...

An oasis of rational thought amidst a sea of obfuscation; I was beginning to wonder if there was anyone else left.

Thank you John.

John Hilley said...

Cheers, Jerry.

It's good to know you're out there too.

Best wishes.