Responding rationally to the Woolwich murder

By Savi Hensman
May 23, 2013

In the streets of Woolwich, south-east London, a brutal murder took place yesterday (22 May). Pictures and eyewitness accounts suggest that a man was hacked to death in broad daylight and those responsible for this horrific crime were arrested shortly afterwards. While this was a tragedy for the victim, his family and friends and a shock to the local community, the reaction by some in government risks spreading unnecessary panic.

Though the victim was apparently a soldier, if off-duty and unarmed, he was clearly a non-combatant and the killing unjustifiable by any stretch of the imagination.

Politically-motivated violence is nothing new in London. For instance in 1999 an extreme right-winger set off a bomb in Brixton market, then in Brick Lane (in the midst of a largely Asian – and Muslim – community), finally attacking a gay pub in Soho, resulting in three deaths.

While people at the time were obviously fearful with the bomber or bombers still at large, the government quite sensibly avoided sending out the message that a massive terrorist campaign by white supremacists posed a major threat to Britain’s security. Shortly afterwards the nail-bomber, David Copeland, was arrested.

Though a one-time member of the British National Party before joining an even more extreme group, he was deemed to have acted alone. Even where fascists have been involved in more concerted action, the authorities have tended to be, if anything, too lax about racist and homophobic terror.

In the Woolwich instance, however, presumably because the two suspects were reportedly Islamist extremists (whatever additional personal motives led them to act in this self-destructive as well as violent way), the reaction from the government was on a very different scale. It was as if the nation as a whole were under serious threat.

On the day of the attack some leaders, to their credit, encouraged a calm and rational response, notably Mayor of London Boris Johnson. However the reaction at national level seemed more likely to spread panic. The murderers clearly succeeded in their attention-grabbing strategy.

Ordinary Muslims, who obviously pose not the slightest threat to their neighbours, now face a backlash. Ironically, this comes largely from individuals and groups who have benefited from the fact that the actions of the most violent English nationalists have not resulted in the demonisation of all in this movement, let alone others who happen to share their cultural heritage.

Whenever murders take place, it is important to act to secure public safety as well as to bring the killers to justice. This may include checking whether they have any associates who share their criminal intentions. A reasoned and calm response from those in charge is helpful in such situations.

(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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