Woolwich: A pretext for state repression
The murder of a soldier highlights the irrationality of bourgeois politics - but also the failure of the left, argues Paul Demarty
There is a famous scene in Mike Myers’s spy spoof, Austin Powers: international man of mystery, in which the eponymous hero is driving a steamroller at a glacial pace towards a terrified henchman of the main antagonist, Dr Evil. Instead of evading his grisly fate by calmly stepping five paces to the side, the henchman stands stock still, screaming, as the steamroller inches towards him.
So it has been in the days after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich. The whole narrative has been playing out exactly according to the script: a prurient obsession with the grisly details of the murder; the attempts of ordinary, plucky Brits to intervene; government calls for more intense repression; desperate and undignified hand-wringing from the left; and chauvinist backlash from the right.
We have been here before. As it happens, I was on the east coast of the United States for the week following the Boston marathon bombing, which saw more or less the same reaction play out in more or less the same way. Yet somehow this latest British iteration of the pattern is even more ridiculous. In Boston, after all, three people were killed and over a hundred injured, some permanently maimed. There was then a day of bizarre action-movie drama, with car-jackings, shootouts and a police manhunt.
Think about it for more than one second, however, and the murder of one man in a deprived area of south London is definitely - all things being equal - on the ‘dog bites man’ end of the newsworthiness scale. There has been much hoo-ha over whether it is acceptable to call the murder ‘terrorism’, which we will get to below. But it is clear that we are not dealing with an international network of battle-hardened urban guerrillas here. It is a grisly and shocking crime, in which the perpetrators hung around waiting for the police to arrive, covered in the victim’s blood. Calling this a ‘police matter’ is almost insulting to the police.
The idea that David Cameron needs to convene a Cobra committee meeting to deal with a crime of this kind is ridiculous. Yet the political grandstanding was rendered sadly inevitable the moment the word ‘terrorism’ started being thrown around.
So was this an act of terrorism? There have recently been signs of unease - particularly among liberals in the United States - at the way the term is used. If that unease is justified in the wake of the Boston marathon bombing, it is all the more so in the midst of this farce.
The murder can be called a terrorist act in a particular, strict sense. When one of the suspects declared that “This soldier is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, he was not entirely accurate. If your concern is to kill a soldier for every butchered civilian in the Muslim world, then hacking them to death, one by one, in crowded high streets is not a particularly efficient manner in terms of time and effort in which to do so. The point, rather, was to make an enormous spectacle out of the violence in order to shake up the civilian population. On that fairly classical definition, you can call it terrorism.
Words do not only mean things, however - they do things as well. Journalists such as Glenn Greenwald - an American radical liberal and trenchant critic of the US security state - have pointed out repeatedly that the US media are far quicker to label as ‘terrorist’ political crimes perpetrated by Muslims than those, for example, carried out by Tea Party types. The fact that US drone strikes, for example, amount to a terroristic form of collective punishment equally escapes analysis.
So let us imagine a character like Michael Adebolajo, principal suspect in the Woolwich attack, handing out (as he did) fire-breathing religious-reactionary propaganda outside Woolwich Arsenal DLR station every Saturday afternoon - but Christian, rather than Muslim literature. One day, he and an accomplice butcher a gay man on the high street, declaring that the horrified civilians had better change their government or the murders will continue.
Would David Cameron fly back from Germany on the next plane and convene an executive security committee to respond? Would the press be laden with calls for Christians to root out the ‘extremists’ in their ranks? Would anyone call it terrorism? The question answers itself - of course not. It would be dismissed as the act of a lone lunatic, and treated as a matter for police, and perhaps mental health professionals.
Making this crime into an ‘act of terror’ is a political decision on the part of, most especially, the government, and also the reactionary press. What is more, Adebolajo, and his fellow suspect, Michael Adebowale, could not have timed their attack better, so far as the imperialist establishment is concerned.
The Middle East is dangerously close to boiling point. It is clear that Washington and its allies are by no means finished militarily meddling in the region’s affairs. The US Senate recently voted unanimously to take the side of Israel in any conflict with Iran over the latter’s nuclear programme - the unanimity on display is a clear indication that the American state apparatus is happy to give the go-ahead to its increasingly tetchy regional attack dog.1 Meanwhile, direct and indirect support to the Syrian opposition - which includes people with the same general world outlook as the Woolwich killers - continues, with the lifting of a European Union arms embargo, as that country slides further into bloody chaos.
There are further indications that the ‘war on terror’, so far as the core of the US state apparatus is concerned, is going to continue for a long time yet. Michael Sheehan, assistant secretary of defence, told a Senate hearing that this ill-defined pseudo-war is to continue for “at least 10 to 20 years”.2 A widely heralded speech by Barack Obama seems to point in the other direction; but like all Obama speeches, it is so utterly vague as to be meaningless.
Apart from the grand geopolitical considerations, there is the inevitable ratcheting up of the security state.
Theresa May, never one to miss an opportunity of this kind, announced a whole raft of plans to combat those pesky ‘extremists’ and ‘preachers of hate’, who are - of course - entirely responsible for the ideology of these two disturbed individuals. She wants pre-emptive bans on jihadist websites; she wants an 1980s Sinn Féin-style ban on broadcasting the messages of radical Islamists; above all else, she is using Rigby’s murder to push for the passage of the Communications Bill in full, which will allow state monitoring of all electronic communications.
The Woolwich attack, let us be honest, is a pretty threadbare excuse for all this. In the first place, it is clear that Adebolajo, at least, was known to MI5; allegations have surfaced that he was approached by the spooks to become an informer, while attempting to mobilise jihadi fighters in Kenya to travel with him to war-ravaged Somalia (he was also allegedly tortured by Kenyan authorities at this time). It is difficult to see how a ‘snooper’s charter’ is going to be any aid whatsoever in preventing low-level, politically motivated crimes by individuals who are already known to state intelligence services in any case ...
Banning ‘extremist’ websites, meanwhile, is something that has to be done properly or not at all. The Chinese state has had some success in this area by addressing itself to the problem with the full force of a Stalinist bureaucracy, but even in this case success is limited. Quite apart from al Qa’eda types, there is the small matter of politically engaged hackers, whose politics tend towards extreme libertarianism; blocked websites will be mirrored and proxied, simply to anger the powers that be. (This has become known as the Streisand Effect, after Barbra Streisand’s incompetent attempts to have a picture of her repulsive cliff-top California mansion suppressed.)
Underlying this is a certain decline in the ability of the bourgeois state to conduct its affairs in a properly cynical, rational way. Establishment voices increasingly grumble about the decline of the Sir Humphrey character - the civil servant who will quietly obstruct and destroy all the ‘bright ideas’ of the government of the day likely to interfere with the smooth administration of the state machine. They point to the US equivalent of the snooper’s charter, which has generated an incomprehensibly vast amount of material that a million-strong CIA task force could not adequately monitor. It certainly did not stop the Boston bombing, the prime suspect for which was likewise already known to the authorities.
The centralisation of executive power, in the US and Britain alike, has undermined such obstructive middlemen, and smoothed the transition of any given hare-brained notion from the Daily Mail op-ed pages to the statute book. The result is a creeping authoritarian dystopia, but half-cocked and dysfunctional - more Brazil than 1984.
Right and left
Similar establishment voices complain that the absurd over-reaction of the government to this crime has implicitly endorsed the narrative proposed by the killers: that it is an act of war in retaliation for attacks on Muslims. “In taking mundane acts of violence and setting them on a global stage, we not only politicise them: we risk validating the furies that drive them,” writes Simon Jenkins. “When Cameron yesterday said we should defy terror by going about our normal business, he was right. Why did he not do so?”3
By the same token, it validates the furies of other undesirables. Equally inevitably, we have seen a repugnant far-right backlash. The English Defence League, which for a brief time appeared moribund (its recent marches have generally turned out a couple of hundred at best), has been given a shot in the arm. Fairly substantial EDL demos - one or two thousand strong - have been taking place in various cities.
They have invariably outnumbered the anti-fascist counter-demonstrations, which stand exposed as utterly reliant on total over-mobilisation of people up and down the country to converge on the one town the EDL happen to be showing up in. The EDL, however, does not feed primarily off its own organisational fibre, but the general ideological atmosphere; in the last week, it has thrived. Its revival is probably temporary; but that hatred will go somewhere - probably to the UK Independence Party - and haunt British politics in the years to come.
The left, engaged as it is desperately chasing the EDL around, stands exposed as generally having nothing of substance to say on the matter. Socialist Worker editor Judith Orr just about manages to mention the snooper’s charter, but frames the whole issue in terms of race.4 It is enough not to “let the racists divide us” - as if the Socialist Workers Party needs any help ‘dividing’ its pathetic anti-fascist mobilisations, or indeed itself.
Compared to a statement from the Stop the War Coalition and Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, however, Socialist Worker is an object lesson in penetrating and principled analysis. The Woolwich attack “appears to represent a phenomenon that was pointed out nearly a decade ago by the security services in Britain: that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would lead to a growing threat of terrorism in Britain.”5 I suppose Tony Blair should have listened to those most consistent friends of peace, MI6, before taking us into Iraq.
But what is more dubious still is the implication here - that extremely low-level terrorist outrages are in themselves reasons to pull out of a war. This is pacifist nonsense. People resist just violence quite as vigorously as unjust violence. Should the Bolsheviks have given up on fighting the white armies because of internal sabotage and subversion operations? Mutatis mutandis, should the anti-Mubarak protesters have given up on Tahrir Square because the state was likely to respond with full force?
This, in a sense, brings us back to the beginning. The STWC/CND statement also implicitly accepts the momentous significance of this event. For Theresa May, it ‘proves’ that all communications need to be monitored; for the EDL, it ‘proves’ that Muslims are involved in a war of extermination against the west; for our pacifist imbeciles, it ‘proves’ that Afghanistan and Iraq were dreadful mistakes.
In fact, it proves none of these things. What is telling is the ease with which the Woolwich attack became an existential threat to the British nation, the speed with which total hysteria took hold.
In the first place, it displays the decline of US hegemony (of which Britain is a well-integrated, core client state). The US and its allies are decreasingly able to secure stable political regimes compliant with their needs; instead, military adventures end in perpetual bloodshed and chaos. It is serendipitous that Michael Adebolajo should have been trying to fight a holy war in Somalia, of all places - perhaps the first country in the modern era where a US police operation could only create a failed state. Iraq and Afghanistan are very much after the same pattern. The perpetual ‘war on terrorism’ is a very acute symptom of this decline, as is the inevitable backlash, in Boston or in Woolwich.
Secondly, it is clear that the anti-war movement, and the left that drove it, has withered away almost to nothing. In 2004, Islamists conducted a far more bloody attack on Madrid; the immediate political response on the part of the Spanish people was to boot out a pro-war government in favour of an ostensibly anti-war one. That the immediate political consequence of the Woolwich attack should be a boost for a lumpen gang of fascists tells you everything about the utter demobilisation of anti-war sentiment in this country. That is our fault and nobody else’s.
3. The Guardian May 23.
4. Socialist Worker May 28.