Though the debate on this subject is now nearly a century old, there is no reason to believe that it has run its course.
But if the debate is old, the subject is still fresh — in fact it is fresher and more relevant now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. The changes in our own world have altered our perspective on the events of 1914. In the 1960s-80s, a kind of period charm accumulated in popular awareness around the events of 1914. It was easy to imagine the disaster of Europe’s ‘last summer’ as an Edwardian costume drama. The effete rituals and gaudy uniforms, the ‘ornamentalism’ of a world still largely organized around hereditary monarchy had a distancing effect on present-day recollection. They seemed to signal that the protagonists were people from another, vanished world. The presumption stealthily asserted itself that if the actors’ hats had gaudy green ostrich feathers on them, then their thoughts and motivations probably did too.
And yet what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity. It began with a squad of suicide bombers and a cavalcade of automobiles. Behind the outrage at Sarajevo was an avowedly terrorist organization with a cult of sacrifice, death and revenge; but this organization was extra-territorial, without a clear geographical or political location; it was scattered in cells across political borders, it was unaccountable, its links to any sovereign government were oblique, hidden and certainly very difficult to discern from outside the organization. Indeed, one could even say that July 1914 is less remove from us — less illegible — now than it was in the 1980s. Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers — a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914. These shifts in perspective prompt us to rethink the story of how war came to Europe. Accepting this challenge does not mean embracing a vulgar presentism that remakes the past to meet the needs of the present but rather acknowledging those features of the past of which our changed vantage point can afford us a clearer view.
Among these is the Balkan context of the war’s inception. Serbia is one of the blind spots in the historiography of the July Crisis. The assassination at Sarajevo is treated in many accounts as a mere pretext, an event with little bearing on the real forces whose interaction brought about the conflict. In an excellent recent account of the outbreak of war in 1914, the authors declare that ‘the killings [at Sarajevo] by themselves caused nothing. It was the use made of this event that brought the nations to war.’ The marginalization of the Serbian and thereby of the larger Balkan dimension of the story began during the July Crisis itself, which opened as a response to the murders at Sarajevo, but later changed gear, entering a geopolitical phase in which Serbia and its actions occupied a subordinate place.
Our moral compass has shifted, too. The fact that Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia emerged as one of the victor states of the war seemed implicitly to vindicate the act of the man who pulled the trigger on 28 June — certainly that was the view of the Yugoslav authorities, who marked the spot where he did so with bronze footprints and a plaque celebrating the assassin’s ‘first steps into Yugoslav freedom’. In an era when the national idea was still full of promise, there was an intuitive sympathy with South Slav nationalism and little affection for the ponderous multinational commonwealth of the Habsburg Empire. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have reminded us of the lethality of Balkan nationalism. Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, it has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right. From the perspective of today’s European Union we are inclined to look more sympathetically — or at least less contemptuously — than we used to on the vanished imperial patchwork of Habsburg Austria-Hungary.
Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went To War In 1914, 2012.
May 17, 2014
May 4, 2014
In the Guardian, Nick Cohen says that the girls have not been “abducted” — they’ve been enslaved:
Terrorists from a religious cult so reactionary you don’t have to stretch the language too far to describe it as fascistic attack a school. The assault on a civilian target, filled with non-combatant children, has a grotesque logic behind it. They call themselves “Boko Haram”, which translates as “western education is forbidden”. The sect regards learning as oppression. They will stop all teaching that conflicts with a holy book from the 7th century and accounts of doubtful provenance on the life and sayings of their prophet written hundreds of years after he died.
A desire for sexual supremacy accompanies their loathing of knowledge. They take 220 schoolgirls as slaves and force them to convert to their version of Islam. They either rape them or sell them on for £10 or so to new masters. The girls are the victims of slavery, child abuse and forced marriage. Their captors are by extension slavers and rapists.
As you can see, English does not lack plain words to describe the foulness of the crimes in Nigeria, and no doubt they would be used in the highly improbable event of western soldiers seizing and selling women.
Yet read parts of the press and you enter a world of euphemism. They have not been enslaved but “abducted” or “kidnapped”, as if they will be released unharmed when the parties have negotiated a mutually acceptable ransom. Writers are typing with one eye over their shoulder: watching their backs to make sure that no one can accuse them of “demonising the other”.
Turn from today’s papers to the theoretical pages of leftwing journals and you find that the grounds for understanding Boko Haram more and condemning it less were prepared last year.
Without fully endorsing Boko Haram, of course, socialists explained that it finds “resonance in the hearts of many poor and dispossessed” people, who are revolted by “the corruption and flamboyant lifestyle of the elites”. Islamism is recast as a rational reaction to local corruption and the global oppression of “neoliberalism”, one of those conveniently vague labels that can mean just about anything.
April 23, 2014
In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf says that a new court ruling may actually force President Obama to disclose the secret law under which he ordered the killing of at least one American citizen:
The Obama Administration has fought for years to hide its legal rationale for killing an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, after putting him on a secret kill list. Citizens have an interest in knowing whether the White House follows the law, especially when the stakes are as high as ending a life without due process. President Obama has fought to ensure his legal reasoning would never be revealed, a precedent that would help future presidents to kill without accountability.
His shortsightedness is breathtaking.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Colleen McMahon expressed frustration that, according to her legal analysis, the Freedom of Information Act couldn’t force a disclosure. “I can find no way around the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws,” she wrote, “while keeping the reasons for their conclusions a secret.”
Americans ought to have been alarmed that, according to a federal judge, we’re living in an “Alice in Wonderland” reality where leaders use the law to put themselves beyond the law. But no one paid much attention as The New York Times and the ACLU appealed the decision. On Monday, they won an important victory:
A federal appeals panel in Manhattan ordered the release… of key portions of a classified Justice Department memorandum that provided the legal justification for the targeted killing of a United States citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, who intelligence officials contend had joined Al Qaeda and died in a 2011 drone strike in Yemen.
The unanimous three-judge panel, reversing a lower court decision, said the government had waived its right to keep the analysis secret in light of numerous public statements by administration officials and the Justice Department’s release of a “white paper” offering a detailed analysis of why targeted killings were legal.
February 19, 2014
William Tucker suggests that societies that practice polygamy will always produce a violent fringe of men too poor or too powerless to have even a chance of marriage (or any kind of stable relationship with women):
Polygamy? What does that have to do with anything? Am I suggesting that because some minor sheik outside Baghdad takes two wives, two young Muslim brothers in Massachusetts feel compelled to blow up the Boston Marathon?
Well, yes. In any human society there are approximately the same number of men and women. Under monogamy, which limits each man to one wife, everyone gets a fair chance to marry. When powerful and successful men are allowed to take more than one wife, however, as they are in a polygamous society, this creates a pool of unsuccessful men at the bottom of society who are constantly in conflict with the system.
The history of Islam has been one continuous story of rebel groups off in the desert and deciding that the religion being practiced by the authorities and their harems back in the cities is not the “true Islam.” They come crashing back upon the palaces, overthrowing the leaders (no Ottoman Sultan ever died of natural causes) and establishing a new regime that is just like the old one, where powerful are allowed to take multiple wives.
The fruits of polygamy are visible all over the Middle East. Because women are always in short supply, families can charge a “bride price” to any man who wants to marry their daughter. Because daughters are now worth money, they must be veiled and sequestered so they don’t run off with some callow youth. Older men desperate for wives push down into younger and younger cohorts of the population. Marriages between 35-year-old men and 13-year-old girls become common. […]
But the main product of polygamy is a population of angry young men who are ripe recruits for terrorism. The Koran supposedly limits a man to four wives but in countries where there are vast disparities of wealth this is routinely violated. Osama bin Laden’s father, a successful Saudi businessman, had 22 wives and 54 children. The unbalance between unmarried men and the available women in Saudi Arabia is the highest in the world.
September 30, 2013
Tim Black discusses what we know and don’t know about the Kenyan terror attack and why recent terrorist attacks seem less directed at the organs of the state and much more at society as a whole:
Some analysts have even gone so far as to pinpoint Kenyan troops’ take over of the port of Kismayo, a lucrative trading position for al-Shabab, as the catalyst for the Westgate attack. As one commentator put it: ‘[The Westgate attack] wasn’t a random act. On the contrary, it was a direct consequence of Kenya’s own policy decisions. To say that in no way justifies this heinous attack – it merely identifies cause and effect.’
Yet tit-for-tat accounts miss something. They appear too glib, too easy. They may not excuse a drawn-out atrocity like Westgate, but they do give it a nicely polished rationale.
But it’s a rationale at odds with what actually happened. Yes, the Kenyan military, under the auspices of the African Union, did play a role in weakening al-Shabab’s position in Somalia. And no doubt members of al-Shabab, already a declining, increasingly unpopular grouping in Somalia (even Osama Bin Laden disowned it because of is brutality), did feel anger towards the Kenyan army. But there is a massive, unexplained causal gap between that sense of grievance and the attack on a shopping centre in Nairobi. That’s right, a shopping centre. This wasn’t an attack on the Kenyan state. This wasn’t a gun battle with the Kenyan army, the principal object of al-Shabab ire. No, this was an indiscriminate attack on men, women and children at a shopping centre. The people targeted weren’t intent on a conflict with militant Islamists in Somalia; they were shopping for Old El Paso fajita mix.
What’s important to grasp here is that the new terrorism does not draw its militants from any specific struggle in Somalia, or anywhere else for that matter. Rather, it draws upon a broad and deep disillusionment with modern society; it exploits the non-identity between society’s threadbare values and particular members. And it turns certain individuals upon society as a whole. Hence the new terrorism does not target the institutions of the state; it targets the institutions of civil society. In particular, it targets the embodiments of modern social life: a shopping centre in Nairobi, an office block in New York, a market in Baghdad.
In 1911, amid anarchist bomb plots, Vladamir Lenin wrote a scathing critique of what he called ‘individual terrorism’ — the act, for example, of assassinating a minister — on the grounds that it turned what could be a mass struggle into the act of a single individual. ‘In our eyes’, he wrote, ‘individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes towards a great avenger and liberator who some day will come and accomplish his mission’. Today’s individual terrorist is far more degenerate than his anarchist precursors. So far removed from the masses is he, so little concerned is he with any actual struggle for something in particular, that his terror is turned against the masses. The consequences have been barbaric.
September 18, 2013
In the October issue of Reason, Matt Welch talks to Jeremy Scahill about the changes in the role of the President from mere executive branch head to virtual dictator:
Jeremy Scahill has emerged in 2013 as one of the most trenchant and scathing critics of President Barack Obama’s prosecution of an open-ended war and unprecedented tactical framework launched by George W. Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney. “Obama,” Scahill writes in his new bestseller Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield (Nation), has gone from a candidate campaigning against Cheney’s War on Terror abuses to a president guaranteeing “that many of those policies would become entrenched, bipartisan institutions in U.S. national security policy for many years to come.”
Scahill’s 642-page critique, and the accompanying IFC documentary of the same name, picks up the journalistic baton from late-Bush-era books such as Charlie Savage’s 2007 Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy and Jane Mayer’s 2008 The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How The War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. But while those books helped galvanize an anti-imperial, pro-civil liberties left in opposition to Republican politicians, Scahill’s tome, and his ongoing commentary on Twitter and for The Nation, stands as a harsh rebuke to those on the left who sold out those principles once Democrats regained power in Washington. “I think if McCain had been elected,” Scahill explains, “liberals would be crying impeachment over some of the stuff that Obama has done.”
Scahill, the 39-year-old author of the 2007 bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army (Nation), is steadfastly a man of the left — he has worked in the past with documentary polemicist Michael Moore and progressive Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman. But he’s also a skilled and intense reporter with good sources inside the shadowy worlds of American special ops, rendition, torture, and assassination. If Democrats finally begin to hold the Obama administration to the standards by which they once judged its predecessor, Scahill will be a prominent reason why.
August 16, 2013
In Foreign Affairs, Jacob Shapiro looks at the management side of the terror “business”:
But the deeper part of the answer is that the managers of terrorist organizations face the same basic challenges as the managers of any large organization. What is true for Walmart is true for al Qaeda: Managers need to keep tabs on what their people are doing and devote resources to motivate their underlings to pursue the organization’s aims. In fact, terrorist managers face a much tougher challenge. Whereas most businesses have the blunt goal of maximizing profits, terrorists’ aims are more precisely calibrated: An attack that is too violent can be just as damaging to the cause as an attack that is not violent enough. Al Qaeda in Iraq learned this lesson in Anbar Province in 2006, when the local population turned against them, partly in response to the group’s violence against civilians who disagreed with it.
Terrorist leaders also face a stubborn human resources problem: Their talent pool is inherently unstable. Terrorists are obliged to seek out recruits who are predisposed to violence — that is to say, young men with a chip on their shoulder. Unsurprisingly, these recruits are not usually disposed to following orders or recognizing authority figures. Terrorist managers can craft meticulous long-term strategies, but those are of little use if the people tasked with carrying them out want to make a name for themselves right now.
Terrorist managers are also obliged to place a premium on bureaucratic control, because they lack other channels to discipline the ranks. When Walmart managers want to deal with an unruly employee or a supplier who is defaulting on a contract, they can turn to formal legal procedures. Terrorists have no such option. David Ervine, a deceased Irish Unionist politician and onetime bomb maker for the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), neatly described this dilemma to me in 2006. “We had some very heinous and counterproductive activities being carried out that the leadership didn’t punish because they had to maintain the hearts and minds within the organization,” he said, referring to a period in the late 1980s when he and the other leaders had made a strategic calculation that the Unionist cause was best served by focusing on nonviolent political competition. In Ervine’s (admittedly self-interested) telling, the UVF’s senior leaders would have ceased violence much earlier than the eventual 1994 cease-fire, but they could not do so because the rank and file would have turned on them. For terrorist managers, the only way to combat those “counterproductive activities” is to keep a tight rein on the organization. Recruiting only the most zealous will not do the trick, because, as the alleged chief of the Palestinian group Black September wrote in his memoir, “diehard extremists are either imbeciles or traitors.”
August 11, 2013
Mark Steyn on the trial of Major Hasan for “workplace violence”:
On December 7, 1941, the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor was attacked. Three years, eight months, and eight days later, the Japanese surrendered. These days, America’s military moves at a more leisurely pace. On November 5, 2009, another U.S. base, Fort Hood, was attacked — by one man standing on a table, screaming “Allahu akbar!” and opening fire. Three years, nine months, and one day later, his court-martial finally got under way.
He’s admirably upfront about who and what he is — a “Soldier of Allah,” as he put on his business card. On Tuesday, he admitted he was a traitor who had crossed over from “the bad side” (America’s) to “the good side” (Islam’s). He has renounced his U.S. citizenship and its effete protections such as workplace-violence disability leave. He professes loyalty to America’s enemies. He says, “I am the shooter.” He helpfully informs us that that’s his gun. In this week’s one-minute statement, he spoke more honestly and made more sense than Obama, Gates, Casey, the Armed Forces Court of Appeals, two judges, the prosecution and defense lawyers, and mountains of bureaucratic reports and media coverage put together.
But poor old Hasan can say “Yup, I did it” all he wants; what does he know?
Unlike the Zimmerman trial, Major Hasan’s has not excited the attention of the media. Yet it is far more symbolic of the state of America than the Trayvon Martin case, in which superannuated race hucksters attempted to impose a half-century-old moth-eaten Klan hood on a guy who’s a virtual one-man melting pot. The response to Nidal Hasan helps explain why, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, this war is being lost — because it cannot be won because, increasingly, it cannot even be acknowledged. Which helps explain why it now takes the U.S. military longer to prosecute a case of “workplace violence” than it did to win World War Two.
Trevor Moore (Whitest Kids U’ Know) tells us what we can do about the NSA wiretapping our phones.
July 25, 2013
Strategy Page on the plight of a number of kidnapped ship crews in the hands of Somali pirates and the hard times those pirates are facing themselves:
Somalia is a sad place and one of the saddest tragedies ever is being played out where pirates in the north are holding 40 sailors and several ramshackle ships that no one will pay a ransom for. These are seagoing fishing boats and small freighters owned by small operators with no insurance to cover ransoms and not enough cash, or inclination, to pay what the pirates demand. The negotiators (who work for the pirates) have explained all this to the pirate chiefs, who are facing hard times themselves and stubbornly refuse to face the fact that they will never get anything for these 40 sailors and their ramshackle ships (one of which recently sank at anchor). Just killing the remaining prisoners (some held for three years) and sinking the ships risks retribution from the anti-piracy patrol off shore. Countries the prisoners are from have been pressured to pay ransom, but all of them adhere to the “no negotiating with terrorists” code. There is growing pressure on the pirates to simply release the unwanted prisoners on “humanitarian grounds” and at least get some good press out of this mess. That’s a bitter solution for the pirates, who have not captured a ship that could be ransomed in over a year. Several pirate gangs have disbanded and those still around have shrunk and cut the payroll considerably.
The big time piracy is largely out of business because warship patrols and better security aboard large ships passing Somalia has made it nearly impossible to seize these vessels. Holding ships for ransom only worked initially because Somalia, a state without a government since 1991, provided small ports on the coast of East Africa where pirates could bring the merchant ships they had captured, and keep them there, safe from rescue attempts, until a ransom could be negotiated.
Pirates usually function on the margins of society, trying to get a cut of the good life in situations where there aren’t many options. This is usually in areas where state control is weakest or absent, in failing and “flailed” states (a flailing state is something like Nigeria, Indonesia, or the Philippines, where the government is managing to just barely keep things together, unlike a failed state such as Somalia, where there isn’t any government at all).
The solution to piracy is essentially on land, where you go into uncontrolled areas and institute some law and order and remove the pirate safe havens. This has been the best approach since the Romans eliminated piracy in the Mediterranean over 2,000 years ago. Trying to tackle piracy just on the maritime end can reduce the incidence of piracy but can’t eliminate it. In the modern world the “land” solution often can’t be implemented. Who wants to put enough troops into Somalia to eliminate piracy? And flailing states are likely to be very sensitive about their sovereignty if you offer to help them control marginal areas.
A new industry has developed that attempts to “pirate proof” ships operating off Somalia. The most successful (and most expensive) technique is to put a small number of armed guards on each ship. That, and warship patrols, has greatly reduced piracy off East Africa (Somalia). But off West Africa (especially the Gulf of Guinea) the piracy threat is growing because pirates have found ways to get more valuables off ships before security forces (police, coast guard, or navy) can show up.
June 21, 2013
It’s guaranteed to get on a lot of thin-skinned people’s radar:
Amidst cries of outrage and controversy, Activision unveiled the latest addition to the Call of Duty franchise at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) last week, entitled Call of Jihad: Scourge of the Infidels. The first-person shooter, developed in conjunction with some of al-Qaeda’s top field experts, will be launched for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for release on September 11, 2013.
Like previous titles in the series, Call of Jihad will feature campaign, online multiplayer and a “Suicide” mode — reminiscent of “Survival” in Modern Warfare 3 — with the objective being to slaughter as many innocents as possible before a quick-reaction force arrives.
The campaign takes place in an alternate reality where infamous al-Qaeda operatives like Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi are still alive and Khalid Sheik Mohammed is a free man. The opening mission of the campaign, displayed as part of a teaser trailer at E3, takes place in the Pakistani compound raided by SEAL Team Six. The player must single-handedly dispatch the American commandos as Bin Laden escapes on a camel before time elapses.
Game developers also confirmed the martyrdom perk would always be turned on.
“It’s fucking sick!” squealed die-hard gamer Bryan Campbell, 17, of Manhattan, New York. “I give it two severed heads up!”
June 9, 2013
A charity event in Halifax had to be cancelled due to a phoned-in bomb threat:
A bomb threat that forced one of the Canadian Cancer Society’s biggest fundraisers to cancel on Friday night is still being felt by other groups organizing their annual walks and runs this weekend.
Halifax Regional Police said someone called 911 from a payphone at the corner of Spring Garden Road and South Park Street and made threats that alluded to the Boston Marathon bombing.
Nearby, nearly 700 people were gathered at the Oval in the Halifax Common for the Relay for Life.
Police met with the organizers and the fundraiser was called off, ruining a year’s worth of work by dozens of volunteers.
“I would say don’t ever do this again because you are hurting people in their time of need,” said Barbra Stead-Coyle, CEO of the Cancer Society.
“Last night my heart broke for the volunteers who put their whole heart and soul into making last night’s events.”
May 29, 2013
Jacob Sullum notes the fascinating debate going on between Barack Obama and the President of the United States:
Last week a guy named Barack Obama gave a speech in which he expressed appropriate concern about the abuse of government power in the name of fighting terrorism. Too bad he’s not in a position to do anything about it.
Obama, who used to teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago, quoted James Madison’s warning that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Yet by declaring war against Al Qaeda and its shifting and proliferating allies and offshoots — groups that will not disappear or surrender anytime in the foreseeable future — he has reinforced the rationale for a never-ending military struggle that sacrifices civil liberties on the altar of national security.
Regarding one especially controversial aspect of that struggle, the used of unmanned aircraft to execute people the president identifies as terrorists, Obama incoherently argues that such assassinations are legitimate acts of war and that they are governed by due process (at least when the targets are U.S. citizens). To make matters even more confusing, he says the requirements of due process can be met through secret deliberations within the executive branch.
Obama nevertheless raised the possibility of establishing “a special court to evaluate and authorize lethal action,” which he said “has the benefit of bringing a third branch of government into the process but raises serious constitutional issues about presidential and judicial authority.” In other words, the advantage of consulting a court is that it would subject Obama’s death warrants to independent review; the disadvantage is that it would subject Obama’s death warrants to independent review.
May 25, 2013
Here he is again, banging on about his failings, particularly over the Woolwich murder:
On occasions like this I really do feel a bit of an intellectual lightweight, I must say. There am I, stuck in the fuddy-duddy mindset where you see a 25-year old father of a one year old boy being hacked to death with meat cleavers on a busy London street and all you can do is respond with the gut feeling that “This is wrong. This is totally wrong!”
Whereas if I were a bit younger, less reactionary and I’d had a proper educational grounding somewhere serious like the LSE, what I would have realised is that you just can’t judge things like this at face value. Sure, there’s a temptation to dwell on what a terrible way to go it must have been for that poor young man; to think about what his family must be going through — his wife and mother especially, who will surely be re-living his imagined death every day from now on till they die; to get quite angry, even, about the perverted political values and warped mindset that led to this barbaric act — and also about the cultural relativism that helped make it possible. But succumbing to this temptation would, of course, be a serious mistake.
No, if you’re a truly enlightened citizen of the modern world, the correct way to respond is the way all those sophisticated intellectual types on Twitter did. You recognise straightaway that the horror of the murder is just a distraction from the real issue. The real issue being, of course, that this regrettable event was the sadly inevitable consequence of Britain’s racism, intolerance and Islamophobia — as demonstrated by Nick Robinson’s bigoted, ignorant and inflammatory use of that reprehensible “of Muslim appearance” comment on BBC news for which he has since, quite correctly, apologised.
Until, as a society, we learn to face up to our collective responsibility for Drummer Lee Rigby’s death, young men like Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale ought to have every right to go on drawing attention to this rampant injustice in whatever way they deem fit. It is frankly outrageous that in order to make their point they had to resort to the blunt instrument of execution by motor vehicle and butcher’s knife. A truly considerate society would have made public funds available for them to afford some properly functioning automatic weaponry. That way these gallant, oppressed freedom fighters could have made their vibrant and refreshingly direct contribution to our national debate with a lot less fuss and a lot less mess — perhaps preventing the disgraceful public overreaction we have witnessed over the last couple of days, everywhere from the hateful, violent racist English Defence League to the hardcore, fascist right-wing BBC.
May 23, 2013
Brendan O’Neill on yesterday’s brutal murder in Woolwich:
One of the most shocking things about the brutal attack in Woolwich yesterday was the arrogance with which one of the bloodied knifemen claimed to be acting on behalf of all Muslims. In what sounded like a South London accent, this British-seeming, casually dressed young man bizarrely spoke as if he were a representative of the ummah. He talked about “our lands” and what “our people” have to go through every day. He presumably meant Iraqis and Afghanis, or perhaps the broader global “Muslim family”.
How can a couple of men so thoroughly convince themselves that they speak for all Muslims, to the extent that they seriously believe their savage and psychotic attack on a man in the street is some kind of glorious act of Islamic resistance? Perhaps because they live in a country in which claiming to speak “on behalf of” a community, even if you’ve never been elected by or even seriously talked to that community, is taken seriously. A country where one’s identity, one’s racial or religious or cultural make-up, now counts for everything, certainly for more than what one does or what one believes. A country in which the politics of identity, the narrow and deeply divisive communal politics of shared cultural traits, has been privileged over all other kinds of politics.
The Woolwich murderer’s impromptu claim to be acting on behalf of the grievances of Muslims everywhere echoes the statements made by the 7/7 bombers. “Your democratically elected governments continue to perpetuate atrocities against my people all over the world”, said chief bomber Mohammad Siddique Khan. “My people” — what extraordinary arrogance and self-righteousness. Did Khan ever talk to “his people” or win a mandate from them? Of course not, no more than the knife-wielding nutter in Woolwich engaged with the inhabitants of what he thinks of as “his lands”. Rather, in this era in which any old fool can claim to be a “community spokesperson”, and can be treated seriously as such, these murderous loners seem to be trying a psychotic version of the same trick — claiming that by dint of shared skin colour or common religious sentiment they have the authority to speak on behalf of millions of people they have never met or whose lands they have never visited.