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Seeking British Unity After the Woolwich Attack

Seeking British Unity After the Woolwich Attack


David John Lee - published on 05/24/13

Has multiculturalism failed?

So a young soldier is butchered to death on the street in broad daylight and now everybody is asking, “Why?”

But we already know the answer. Instead of running away, as murderers traditionally do, these two men hung around waiting for the police to arrive and chatted with members of the public.

They said right out why they’d done it: “Because British soldiers kill Muslims every day.”  Those were the exact words of Mr. Adebolajo, as he stood, bloody knife in hand, commentating his actions to shocked passers-by.  

The police now refer to Mr. Adebolajo as a “suspect”.  Given the circumstances, that term seems a little overcautious. After all, Mr. Adebolajo has already confessed; the crime had multiple witnesses. Nobody the length and breadth of Britain is in any doubt he did it.

So this murder-as-performance-art went on for a few minutes, killers proudly showing off their handiwork, until the police turned up and shot them. A little late, by some accounts. And it’s not entirely clear why firearms had to be used.

But anyway, perhaps the more pressing question isn’t “Why?” but “What’s next?” Were these guys loners?  If not, how many more lunatics are out there sharpening their machetes?

The media reaction tells you a lot.  For Americans, there will be echoes of 9/11: a society spontaneously pulling together in the face of a cowardly and outrageous attack.

Stress has been laid on the victim as “one of us.” He was “popular and witty.” He would do “anything for anybody.” He was “a loving son, husband, father, brother, and uncle, and a friend to many." Not only that; at the time of the attack, he was unarmed and wearing a Help The Heroes charity tee-shirt.

Over and against this, the vocabulary used to describe the killers pretty quickly settled on the term terrorist.  

Britain has a number of enemies within.  In the last few weeks, a lot of media attention has been heaped on multinationals who make money in the UK but – through the magic of accountancy – turn out to owe almost nothing in the way of tax.

Terrorists, though, are not enemies defined by the shape of a balance sheet. In the popular imagination, they are far closer to pedophiles – people who have broken their contract with society in a way that provokes both horror and loathing.

From the government’s point of view, of course, pedophiles present a dilemma, because some of those accused in the wake of the Jimmy Savile inquiry are embarrassingly prominent. 

Happily, terrorists tend not to be popular entertainers or captains of industry.  Instead, they are conveniently small and subversive, and the violence of their methods typically undermines sympathy for their cause.

And so Prime Minister David Cameron said what he had to say, and what leaders in such situations always say: “We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms.”

It’s worth asking what is denoted by the word “we”.  It implies solidarity and uniformity. And in democratic societies, since democracy is all about the peaceful management of difference, it’s a relatively rare thing. Certain events and situations conjure it into existence; others (including most government policy-making) usually don’t.

I am choosing my words carefully here.

As that arch-political realist Machiavelli pointed out around five centuries ago, for successful governments, war is not a calamity but a tool of statecraft. Faced with an outside threat, the people at the top cease to be the nitpicking cause of everybody’s ills and suddenly – miraculously, even – become a rallying point of national unity.

I’m not implying that Mr. Cameron either relishes the current crisis or is cynically capitalizing on it. But politicians who preside over economic downturns fast lose their shine with the electorate.  And it’s worth noting that the last time he voiced the nation’s outrage, it was to condemn a professional footballer who had bitten a member of the opposing team.  Not exactly a national crisis.

To understand how the Brits are reacting to the murder, you have to go back a couple of years, to Germany. It’s October 16, 2010, and Chancellor Angela Merkel is addressing young members of the Christian Democratic Union party.

Taking up a sensitive issue in Germany – the free flow of migrants across the European Union – she told the audience: “And of course, the approach to build a multicultural society and to live side-by-side and to enjoy each other …  has failed, utterly failed.”

Fast forward to the following February, still in Germany, and David Cameron is at the European Security Conference, setting out his stall on extremist Islam. With a longstanding influx of migrants from the colonies, Britain has a longer history of large-scale immigration than Germany does. But the diagnosis is strikingly similar.

Immigrants to Britain, says David Cameron, “find it hard to identify with Britain … because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream. We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong.”

Just what constitutes the unifying vision of Britain’s collective identity: The Queen?  The London Olympics? Tea?  It’s hard to pin down. David Cameron talks about freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, and “equal rights, regardless of race, sex, or sexuality.”  But these are transnational values, not particularly British ones, and some of them still lack full consensus. 

In the days of the British Empire, when the UK was a little more like the United States is now, “King and country” exerted a much more powerful binding force than they do today.  By global standards, though, the UK is a nation in economic and political decline.  Popular media using the term “Great Britain” lay almost ludicrous emphasis on the word “Great”.  There is a sense of whistling to keep one’s spirits up.

It’s being asked why MI5, the British security service, did not prevent this murder happening when the two perpetrators were already under observation. Truth be told, though, Islamic radicalism doesn’t have a high profile in the UK. A deeper and wider concern for MI5, though rarely aired in the media, is what happens to society generally as the debt and unemployment rise and the available cash runs out.

Just last year, MI5 privately warned its staff that the UK is just “48 hours from anarchy.” Because 48 hours is about how long it takes for people to clear out a supermarket once the supply chains break down. After that, they confidently anticipate, there will be large-scale disorder, looting, and rioting.

To that you can add the tendency for Europeans to fall back into their old tribal groups (including the Scots and the Basque separatists) and the well-trodden path in Europe from social disorder to fascism.

But we’re not there yet. And the 15 minutes of terror outside Woolwich Barracks gave at least one good reason for hope.

According to the BBC, one bystander tried to comfort the dying man, while others formed a group around his body to shield him from further attacks.

Here were ordinary people doing something. Not because they believed in Mr. Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” (whatever that is), or wanted to defend the state against attacks from Islamic terrorists, but just because, when the moment demanded it, they were instinctively decent and courageous.

Oh – and they were nearly all women.

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