Yesterday afternoon Lee Rigby, a young, off-duty soldier was run over by a car and then hacked to death in Woolwich, 10 miles down the road from my home in London.
“The two alleged murderers made no attempt to escape capture by police,” said BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner. “The investigators will want to know exactly who they are, who they know, and what their motive was for the attack.”
The motive won’t take much searching for (although there are probably many psychological and social layers underlying it). An astonishingly courageous and cool-headed passer-by, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, kept one of the killers talking to distract him from making further attacks. He told her, “I killed him because he kills Muslims over there and I am fed up that people kill Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.” His accomplice is caught on film by another passer-by explaining similar motives.
But finding out “exactly who they are”, will be easier said than done.
One of the attackers has been identified as 28-year old Michael Adebolajo.
But who is Adebolajo? What defines his identity? Is it his religion? If so, which religion? The one he was born into and of which he was a devout follower until he was 16 years old (Christianity)? Or the one he converted to twelve years ago (Islam)? Michael Adebolajo now goes by the name of Mujahid. And lest we leap to judgments about which of those religions is most violent, let us remember that one phrase he uses to explain his actions, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is echoed in both the Bible and the Quran (and also in the Jewish Torah).
I read that the attackers had been described as being “of Muslim appearance”. I assumed that this meant that they wore the length of beard, and ‘modest’ (ie loose) clothing prescribed by Islam and favoured by many Middle Eastern and Asian Muslims in the UK and elsewhere. So I was somewhat surprised to see in the news footage, that the man brandishing a bloodied cleaver and knife was a clean-shaven black man wearing a tightly buttoned modern duffel jacket, jeans and a knitted hat. (Perhaps whoever described him as being “of Muslim appearance” had access to more intimate views of Adebolajo?).
Or is his identity defined by his country? If so, which country? The media is describing him as “a Briton of Nigerian descent.” Yet he says in the video ” “I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same.” It’s my emphasis, because the phrase leapt out at me, spoken as it was by a guy with an unequivocally London accent. Presumably he’s not talking about Nigeria.
Yet later he contradicts himself again by telling us to tell our politicians “to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace”. Again my emphasis. The blood of one of ‘our’ troops was not yet dry on his hands as he spoke these words.
Last night members of the English Defence League, the EDL, took to the streets and two men have been arrested in separate attempts to attack mosques. So clearly they’ve decided to define him by his religion. Not by his ethnicity, as has happened in the past when British cities have been rocked by black vs white ‘race riots’. (A spin-off identity crisis has hit the electricity company EDF which has had to respond to numerous Tweets denouncing – or praising – its participation in last night’s anti-Muslim demonstrations!).
It seems almost arbitrary what aspect of a killer will be chosen to define him; the Boston bombers’ Uncle Ruslan said they had “brought shame on their whole [Chechnyan] ethnicity”, while British Prime Minister, David Cameron, described yesterday’s murder as a ‘betrayal of Islam’. If they had been women, no doubt their gender would have been in the spotlight.
It’s tempting to try to reduce a horrific event like this down into something simple and understandable. Something we can neatly label and put in a box – like ‘Islamist extremists’. But the truth is always messier, more complex and full of contradictions.
Adebolajo has created a mythology for himself, he has clothed himself and his crime with multiple identities – Islamic jihadist, defender of women’s delicate sensibilities, messenger to British politicians, liberator of the British people. But these mythologies are just that, an attempt to give his crime a veneer of glamour.
So if we must reduce his identity to one comprehensible idea, maybe it should be that he is just a man guilty of a cruel and ultimately pointless murder – as cruel and pointless as the murder of an elderly Muslim man in Birmingham last month.