Is a 'surgical strike' in Afghanistan any more palatable than a surgical hacking in Woolwich?
In essence, is state killing not terrorism? Would the bloody outcomes of Nato strikes ever appear so graphically on front pages the way they have for the Woolwich killing?
By John Hilley
Would the bloody outcomes of Nato strikes, like the one that killed this child, ever appear so graphically on front pages the way they have for the Woolwich killing?
Reporters survey the scene, run 'terror warning' front pages and ask how such an atrocity 'could ever happen here'.
Yet, beyond the standard political condemnation and media 'examination', what more humanitarian thoughts and questions might be invoked over this horrific death?
The first compassionate thought should always be with the immediate victim, the person or persons killed, the life taken. That means all persons killed, all life taken, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or on 'our' streets.
The next thought, equally human, but of more compassionate purpose, should be to ask ourselves why these kind of violent attacks are happening.
Is it enough, or even useful, just to feel appalled by such violence? Is it remotely helpful just to condemn?
Or is it more productive and humanitarian to ask what compels or encourages it?
An ITN report on the killing noted: "A British soldier killed not in war, but at home" - war, presumably for such journalists, being something that can be visited upon others, in their countries, but not here in 'ours'.
Yet, are we really to believe that lands can be illegally invaded, their resources stolen, their people slaughtered, and that others, 'homegrown' or otherwise, will not react, often violently, to those appalling situations?
Ex-soldier turned anti-war campaigner Joe Glenton is in no doubt:
As we advance that line of enquiry, further humanitarian questions occur: why was this killing announced, particularly, as a "terrorist" attack? What makes an attack on a soldier or a civilian here different from a soldier attacking and killing either a combatant or a civilian in Afghanistan?
As Glenn Greenwald asks:
How can one create a definition of "terrorism" that includes Wednesday's London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners? Can that be done? [...]The reason it's so crucial to ask this question is that there are few terms - if there are any - that pack the political, cultural and emotional punch that "terrorism" provides. When it comes to the actions of western governments, it is a conversation-stopper, justifying virtually anything those governments want to do. It's a term that is used to start wars, engage in sustained military action, send people to prison for decades or life, to target suspects for due-process-free execution, shield government actions behind a wall of secrecy, and instantly shape public perceptions around the world.
In essence, is state killing not terrorism? Are people not terrorised, terrified, by helicopter gunships? Is the killing of a person in this way any more or less gruesome than the obliteration of an Afghan child with an M16 missile? Is a 'surgical strike' any more palatable than a surgical hacking? Would the bloody outcomes of Nato strikes ever appear so graphically on front pages the way they have for the Woolwich killing?
Having dutifully repeated what official sources had briefed as a 'terrorist' attack, the BBC's Nick Robinson later tweeted: "To those offended by my describing the attacker as of "Muslim appearance" - I was directly quoting a Whitehall source quoting the police."
Robinson later apologised for the remark. Yet, alongside the insistence on a 'terrorist' crime, here, unwittingly revealed, was a consensually-loaded interpretation from police, government and the BBC.
What, does a Muslim supposedly 'look like'? Is it conceivable that any of these institutions would ever speakof an alleged attacker as being of 'Christian appearance' or 'Jewish appearance'?
Besides the 'incriminating look', various suggestions have been made about the questionable sanity of those who carried out this attack. Yet, why is this question confined to such assailants?
As Arundhati Roy notes, while Obama goes about his family life, he is ordering drone strikes that terminate other families' very existence.
Noting the public appearance of leaders like Blair and Obama, Roy describes their acts of war and violence as "psychopathic", observations that invite us to think about what separates 'respectable' appearance from true and disturbing intent.
Watching the fawning media treatment still enjoyed by Blair, the issue is not just whether his actions may be psychopathic. It's that the very suggestion of such a question is not even up for reasonable discussion, even in the liberal media.
While the precise psychiatry of people like Obama and Blair may be open to conjecture, what's certainly evident is their willingness to execute decisions that would in any other set of circumstances, like Woolwich, be deemed criminally psychotic in their ruthless disregard for other human beings.
The killers at Woolwich had visible blood on their hands. But Blair, Obama, Cameron and others have much, much more of it on theirs, even if it's unseen.
And so, a deeper question arises: watching Obama with his wife and kids, seeing him at the ball game, visiting victims of gun crime or natural disasters, how can we find it in ourselves to castigate such 'just like us' people?
Why do we so readily condemn one act of terrible killing, but not those who perpetrate horrific multiple others? Is it simply because the latter don't actually pull the trigger, fire the missile or release the bomb?
Even now, ten years on from the decision that led to mass slaughter in Iraq, how readily might we really imagine, or wish to see, Blair jailed for high war crimes? Why is that possibility still beyond much of the public's comprehension? And why, with all their mass criminality, are leaders like Cameron still permitted to claim such 'moral authority', from calling for 'more benign intervention' in Syria to denouncing the Woolwich killers?
And remember too that those Western leaders of 'benign appearance' are the very same ones ready to support and fund those of 'Muslim appearance' and jihadi intent in Syria, just as they once expediently backed the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.
The public may readily rationalise all this by saying 'well, politicians have a job to do, often an unenviable one'. But the basic question remains: why are those like the Woolwich killers denounced as evil and insane, terrorist and extremist, fanatical and deranged, while powerful mass killers are treated with blanket deference and respect?
As that most salient book title asks: Why Are We the Good Guys?
It's of considerable significance why power and a service media will always pose the easiest questions, while evading the most difficult.
The easiest question to answer here is why those men at Woolwich and others have committed such crimes. However mistaken in their response, and however personally responsible, it's because they see violence as way of expressing political grievances and just retribution against oppressor forces.
The harder and more useful question to pose, yet the one consistently avoided, is why those like Obama and Cameron continue to kill so criminally and mercilessly around the globe.
One may assume that such figures see killing as part of their 'office duty', caught up as they are in a world of profit-driven economies, neoliberal demands and insatiable militarism. That, by any decent moral compass, all seems pathological. Yet none of their violence or the forces behind all that are up for serious political or media discussion.
Until those hard, humanitarian questions are not only asked but seriously addressed, the calamity of Western state violence will continue, and the kind of responsive violence we've seen in Woolwich will surely follow on.