Some things that I want to say about the recent, awful murder of Lee Rigby in south London.
You’ll see that I have not referred to the event as a terrorist attack. That’s deliberate, since it seems to me that the alleged murderers were not seeking to inspire terror, but rather shock, anger and, probably, inter-community violence. The hallmark of terrorist attacks is not that they are committed for ideological reasons. The hallmark of terrorist attacks is that they are ideologically-motivated attacks which employ tactics designed to create terror – hence the name. It follows that terrorist attacks tend to involve mass civilian casualties, or the potential for them; the kind of thing that is calculated to cause fear in the minds of the population at large. 7/7, the Manchester bombing: these were terrorist attacks. The murder of one individual – while a horrible crime – is not.
This murder was a dreadful crime, but it was not an exceptional one. Murders of individuals are, regrettably, commonplace: between 2000 and 2012, there were 89 murders in Greenwich – the borough where Lee Rigby was murdered – alone. This kind of murder, where the victim was apparently not known to the alleged murderers, are somewhat rarer, and therefore scarier, but this is still far from being an unprecedented crime.
This raises the question of why the media are lavishing such attention on this story, when murders typically fail to attract any national coverage at all. By covering every twist and turn in lurid detail, it is the media who are giving this event significance that it would not otherwise have. In doing so they are flattering the alleged murderers – transforming their public image from that of squalid little criminals into that of warriors for an evil cause.
The fact that Lee Rigby was a soldier is seen by the media as enhancing the tragedy, but that doesn’t actually make sense. It means accepting as true the proposition that the murder would have been less tragic if he’d had another job, which is clearly untrue. His murder was a dreadful, awful crime – one that has had a devastating effect on his family, friends and colleagues – and it would have had the same effect whatever he did for a living. There is, of course, the added dimension of concern that he was targeted because he was a soldier (time, and the trial, will tell if he was) but that doesn’t make the event of his death any more or less tragic.
We must prevent ourselves from being stampeded into knee-jerk reactions and assumptions. I was out for a long walk at the weekend, and I saw no evidence of tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims – on the contrary, I saw them together in the parks, walking and talking in the sunshine as if nothing untoward had happened. And on the same day I read details of a poll carried out in the immediate aftermath of the attacks which showed that the proportion of people who think that ‘the vast majority of Muslims are good British citizens’ and that ‘Muslims are compatible with the British way of life’ had actually increased since before the attacks.
Despite these positive signs, I’ve seen high-profile coverage which suggests that a full-scale backlash against Muslims is in progress – in part, I think, because journalists expected there to be one. The danger here is that the fear of a widespread backlash may prove as toxic as the reality; it alone may stimulate the bitterness and mutual distrust which is the soil in which extremism of all kinds grows. It would be a terrible shame if the fear and expectation of burgeoning anti-Muslim sentiment led us to see a widespread backlash where there was none, and caused us to overlook the gradual easing of tensions that is the result of all of us – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – coming to know and trust each other. We shouldn’t allow one brutal but isolated murder to derail that great achievement.