TERRY PRONE: Paranoia over Woolwich murder may store up trouble for the future

YESTERDAY, the British Government let it be known that they were thinking again about a funding cut they made a while back.

They had slashed the amount of money devoted to bodies seeking to prevent the radicalisation of young Muslims, and, in the aftermath of the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich, that didn’t seem to have been a great idea. If the butchers of Woolwich hadn’t been radicalised, goes the thinking, they wouldn’t have been out on the streets with cleavers.

It is, on the face of it, an appealing argument. Set up or support organisations to show young Muslims that their religion is fine and dandy as long as it doesn’t lead to personal or collective jihad. Convince them, early on, that they can live a happier, more fulfilled life in the mainstream than as part of a violent minority. It’s a variant of the anti-drugs approach. Except that, as we know, a few teenagers always slip through the most fine-woven support system to become addicts, and a few teenagers will also slip through the anti-radicalism net to become violent killers.

It’s extremely doubtful that pouring money into well-meaning attempts to show teens their better options will be a cost-effective method of preventing horrors such as the world witnessed last week in London. Or of preventing the attack on a soldier in Paris which seems to have been an imitation of the Woolwich savagery. The money might be better spent on bringing to justice the Britons who, post-Woolwich, physically or verbally abused almost 200 individuals who had the misfortune to be readily identifiable as belonging to Islam. That spin-off of the original tragedy has largely been ignored, despite its clear and patent potential to radicalise, not just some of the victims but also some of the victims’ families.

Nothing is as dangerous as a widely-held certainty, and the consensus now is that the Woolwich atrocity was terrorism committed by organised radicalised Muslims who were spotted as problematic several years ago. That certainty crystalised literally within minutes of the killing, partly because eye witnesses reported the killer as yelling a Muslim prayer throughout the murder, but also because footage recorded on a mobile phone and globally broadcast, showed him, bloodied hands and weapon in full display, attempting to justify his crime by reference to soldiers killing Muslims. That sewed it up in one neat parcel: the soldier was selected on physical evidence linking him to the army, including a regimental T shirt, and the assassins used him to symbolically take revenge on the entire British army.

Post-factum joining of the dots meant someone worked out that the paths of the two killers had, at some time in the past, crossed the paths of some fanatical Islam group or groups, leading to the logical conclusion that their action was part of a new wave of planned terror.

The fact that this is logical doesn’t mean it’s not crazy. Because it IS crazy. The two men “have been known to the authorities for up to a decade”. Indeed, demands have already been made that some of the high-ranking officers within the authorities to whom they were known for up to a decade should be found and punished for not doing something about these “radicals” before they started butchering people in the streets of Woolwich.

This ignores the fact that a sizeable proportion of any young male population at any time gets “known to the authorities.” That’s why God made teenage boys: to ensure neither their mothers nor the cops have an easy moment for almost a decade per kid. They drink, take drugs, fight with each other, hang with bad company and crash cars. Or they do a couple of the above while appearing at protests and fancying themselves as revolutionaries.

Lots of now-respectable middle-aged Irish citizens protested in their student past, fancying themselves as revolutionaries. For the powers-that-be to keep even half an eye on those homegrown radicals in the years following their activist period would have required doubling the size of An Garda Síochána. It would also have been a frustrating exercise in catching the inevitable: the covert watchers would have seen most of the erstwhile revolutionaries sliding to the right and to an enthusiastic commitment to conspicuous consumption, with a minority of them becoming leading media and political figures.

Most of those homegrown radicals would have had links to people who had links to terrorist organisations. “Link” is a marvellously loose word. I’m linked to Alan Shatter, because we once shared a publisher. It doesn’t mean that he has ever influenced my thinking or actions in any way. I’m linked to the IRA, too, because I married a man who once upon a time, on a backroad in Armagh, was stopped by a balaclavaed bunch of thugs who tried to steal his car at gunpoint. They failed, but that’s another story. The point is that in a highly connected world, we’re all linked in a but not necessarily in a significant or dangerous way.

Of course the organisations with which the Woolwich killers were associated were rather more dangerous than a Dublin publisher. But the fact remains that whathappened in Woolwich was a stabbing by a vicious thug, done in the company of other vicious thugs. Reportage of the victim being ‘almost beheaded” footage, of a deranged diatribe uttered by a man with scarlet palms and a cleaver would have made it a horror story at any time, but not a horror story involving terrorism.

THE woman who courageously talked to the killer in the moments after the crime did so because she thought the man was off-the-radar excited and should be talked down before he killed someone else. That’s not how a terrorist reacts to a killing. Any well-organised terrorist could have and would have escaped the scene long before a markswoman came along to shoot him after yet another pointless act: taking a run at a cop car.

The electronic capacity to speedily join the dots after such an event, is, on the face of it, a societal advantage. That must be questioned when it leads, as in this case, to unexamined certainties and precipitate action. Britain’s Ministry of Defence rushed, not just to judgment, but to action, post-Woolwich.

Within hours, they were telling members of the army and navy that, since each and every one of them was now a potential target, they should not wear their uniforms out on the street. Members of the British forces reacted with equal speed but more judgment, indicating that they were not going to be forced out of the uniform they were proud to wear by a small bunch of murderous weirdos.

The Ministry of Defence went into retreat immediately, perhaps noticing that the dead soldier hadn’t been in anything like full uniform when he was attacked, and realising that, with or without uniforms, it’s not that hard to spot a soldier, especially when he or she exits an army barracks.

Time will tell whether or not this was terrorism or plain, old-fashioned thuggery. In the immediate future, we should not allow the Woolwich killing to reverse us into over-reactive paranoia.


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