So far nothing is known about the murderer who thought it would be a good idea to mow down a group of pedestrians and cyclists on Westminster Bridge and assault parliament with a kitchen knife yesterday. The murderer is dead, having completed his homicidal spree with an act of suicide-by-cop that was presumably his ultimate aim in the first place. Last night Channel 4 News bizarrely identified him as Trevor Brooks, aka Abu Izzadeen, the Islamist bigot linked to Andy Choudary’s group of Islamist bigots who once famously heckled John Reid. This claim unraveled within minutes when it was discovered that Brooks is still in jail.
So the killer remains a blank, except that he was almost certainly a Muslim. In the days and weeks to come we will probably learn some details about his trajectory. More than likely it will match the familiar pattern: druggy/petty criminal background followed by ‘conversion’ and rapid ‘radicalisation’. We may learn that he was ‘on the radar of the security services’; that he had been to Syria; that he was a member of a cell or an isolated ‘lone wolf’ who was ‘inspired’ by Islamic State.
For the time being, all this is speculation. Yet within hours of the attacks, the familiar terror attack rhetoric was already unfolding like a machine, and Amber Rudd was depicting the attack as an assault on ‘our shared values’ and insisting that these values would never be destroyed. And the blood hadn’t even dried when the sneering bigot Stephen Lennon who calls himself Tommy Robinson had arrived at Westminster with his personal cameraman to tell the world that ‘these people are waging war on us’ and that ‘this has been going on for 1,400 years.’
Lennon is a man who carries the stench of the political gutter with him wherever he goes, and his arguments are barely worth drawing breath to refute. But his use of the first person plural was a fringe variant of the familiar terror rhetoric that invariably follows such incidents. So far we don’t even have the remotest clue whether yesterday’s murderer was attacking ‘our’ values – if these values are deemed to mean freedom and democracy.
Whatever personal motives he may have had, they are likely to be have been legitimised – in his own eyes at least – by some grievance that he holds the British government and public responsible for. It might be Mosul. It could be RAF bombing sorties in Syria. Whatever it is, it’s likely to be much more specific than the cosy invocations of the first personal plural suggest. Strategically, yesterday’s attacks are more than likely to belong to the usual dismal jihadist playbook: stir up hatred against Muslims who inhabit what IS calls the ‘grey area’; provoke the government into a security overreaction; demonstrate that IS is everywhere and can attack anyone anywhere.
Such things are almost as predictable as the response to them, yet no matter how many times they happen, politicians continue to respond to them with the same meaningless incantations. In the emotional aftermath of these horrendous events, it may be tempting to imagine that ‘they’ (Muslims) really are waging war against ‘us’ (Westerners, Democrats, Liberals etc) or against ‘our values (tolerance, democracy, freedom, female equality).
But it’s worth remembering that hundreds of Muslim civilians who are no less innocent than those who were killed yesterday have been murdered across the world in the last few months by Islamic State and by other so-called jihadist groups. They include the 30 wedding guests blown up in a suicide bomb attack in Tikrit on 11 March; the bomb attack in Lahore in February that killed 30 protesting pharmacists and wounded more than 100; the car bomb that killed more than 30 people in a Mogadishu market on 19 Feb; the Istanbul nightclub massacre on 1 January: the multiple car bombings in Sadr City in Baghdad that killed 56 people and wounded more than 100
This is only the most cursory sample. Look back on the seventeen years since George Bush launched his war against evil, and you will see again and again that Muslims have been killed in far greater numbers than non-Muslims by the groups that the forces of civilisation are supposedly fighting.
No one can be surprised that an attack like the one that took place yesterday should dominate the front pages. But we ought to wonder why even bloodier acts of mass murder carried out by the same franchises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or Somalia receive little no coverage at all, no calls for international solidarity, no facebook memes or twitter hashtags, no lofty rhetoric about freedom and democracy and shared values – and above all no first person plural.
On one level it’s inevitable that British society should pay more attention to an attack carried out here than it does to acts of violence that take place in what Neville Chamberlain once referred to as ‘faraway countries about which we know nothing’. But something else is at stake here in a media-saturated world in which ‘faraway’ no longer means what it used to.
It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that ‘we’ don’t actually care that much about these Muslim victims because they aren’t included in our definition of the first person plural or because such victims don’t fit into the ‘civilisation versus barbarism’ paradigm. Or maybe it’s because they die in countries where we somehow expect people to die violently, so it somehow makes their deaths seem normal and routine, whereas ours are always an anomalous intrusion into normality.
But if the first person plural that politicians invariably evoke on occasions like this refers to humanity as a whole, then it must include those other victims who don’t feature in the ‘them’ and ‘us’ narratives. Because if there is a ‘war’ going on isn’t between Muslims and ‘us’, but between violent Islamist bigots that are as much a danger to their fellow-Muslims as they are to ‘us’. Over the next few days ‘our’ bigots like Trump, Farage, and Melanie Phillips will undoubtedly come swimming through the dank swamp that Lennon and Katie Hopkins already inhabit, and use yesterday’s murders to stir up hatred.
In these circumstances it’s worth remembering that a motorcyclist called Ismail Hassan only narrowly avoided being killed on Westminster Bridge. I have no idea if he was a Muslim, but whoever was driving that car towards him clearly didn’t care if he was or wasn’t. Like his fellow-murderers in Brussels, Nice, Baghdad or Quetta he was prepared to kill anyone who got in his way, whatever their age, gender, nationality, religion or skin colour.
We need to hold onto that simple recognition, not only because we should not divide the world into worthy and unworthy victims, but because we cannot allow the bigots to use yesterday’s atrocity for their own ends and whip up precisely the kind of hatred that its perpetrators undoubtedly seek.