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Using Labels: The ‘Terror’ Act of Woolwich

Using Labels: The ‘Terror’ Act of Woolwich

by Binoy Kampmark
May 23, 2013

It is an object study. Two men in a car, which is driven into another man. The attacked individual is then hacked to death by a meat cleaver or kitchen implement in broad daylight. There may be several instruments used. There are religious chants – or at least the sort popular opinion might expect. The individuals then ask bystanders to take photos and shots. This is their day. It should be preserved for history. Police then arrive and shoot the two men, one of them critically. Eyewitnesses claim that one of the individuals was carrying a firearm (Time, May 22).

All of this has amounted to a “terror” attack. It took place in the south-east London area of Woolwich yesterday. Police were called to the scene of the incident on John Wilson Street at 2.20 p.m. But London has been witness to violent crimes before, as it will continue to be. The descriptions of this event have propelled an event of terrible violence into another category: one of terrorism. Yet hardly anything has actually been said to warrant the term. Then again, as Cicero claimed in his second oration against Verres, O tempora! O mores!

While the misuse of political terminology has become standard, tolerated fare in the twenty-four hour news cycle, it is worth looking at these unfolding events again to heed how terms of security can be misused. The “framing” of an event can have significant implications for policy. It doesn’t require the ponderings of cognitive linguist George Lakoff to remind us how effective those tactics can be. Don’t call it tax evasion. Call it tax minimisation. Don’t call it a criminal act - call it a “terrorist act” before all the facts are known. The agenda is dictated in advance.

Then come the fundamental problems for those dealing in the business of defining terrorism, a field marked as much by charlatanism as it is by usefulness – practitioners cannot agree on any specific term. Dozens are floating about in the spectrum of terminology.

The eyewitness accounts that are coming in suggest that a brutal crime may have taken place, a theatrically bloody act of public spectacle. James Heneghan told radio LBC 97.3 that he and his wife saw two men (yes, he did say black) “hacking this poor guy, hacking him, chopping him.” The assailants “were oblivious to anything, they were more worried about having their photo taken, running up and down the road” (Metro, May 22).

Identification evidence is notorious, and tends to provide defence lawyers with ample grist to a busy mill. It may well be that another such case may be forming. According to another eyewitness, this time Fred Oyat, living in a high-rise near the location of the attack, there were four gun shots, and “four knives on the ground – big kitchen knives. The knives were very bloody” (Time, May 22).

The attacks of September 11 2001 were treated as the singular events of their time. In many ways, this was a disservice to history. Previous eras of terrorism have befallen the tottering human race, mostly inflicted by governments rather than two-bit revolutionaries. The specific attacks of 9/11 have been deemed everything from “acts of war” to “acts of terror”. They have also been regarded as criminal acts, though this view was rapidly swept under the carpet when the dots were joined.

Many are wishing that the latter view might have held sway – the “war on terror” remains one of the most lexically nonsensical creations in the last twenty years. It has produced extra-judicial solutions, legal fantasies and a security culture tolerant of torture (oh, apologies, enhanced interrogation – every occasion deserves it term). It has also produced the atmosphere that transforms a violent act with a machete (or machetes) in a London suburb into terrorism. The only term that comes closer in absurdity is that lamentable construct, the “war on drugs”, that other abused reference that suggests you can wage war against an inert object or a tactic.

The material here for this conversion from alleged criminal act to actual act of terrorism is sketchy but important to note. Heneghan’s observations bolster the designation of terrorism – the assailants “were waiting for the police to arrive to be shot by the police. That’s the only thing I can think.” There were supposedly cries of “AlIah Akbar” before the attack (Birmingham Mail, May 22). Instantly, one thinks of the rhetoric of martyrdom – these religiously intoxicated assailants wanting to perish at the hands of the security establishment. Not quite as dramatic as your standard car bomb, but necessity is the mother of invention.

The individual who lost his life was a British soldier – another box to be ticked in the security chart. He was allegedly wearing a Help for Heroes t-shirt, a military charity for wounded British soldiers.

The location was just a few blocks from the Royal Artillery Barracks. Another box, another tick. There was political speculation over the incident – from local MP Nick Raynsford and even, if this can be verified, French President François Hollande.

To round this off, British Prime Minister David Cameron has joined the speculation, suggesting that there are “strong indications” that this was a terrorist attack. “We have suffered these attacks before, we have always beaten them back. We will not be cowed, we will never buckle.” And whatever happened to that good old fashioned term of a violent crime (actual or alleged), whatever the motivation?


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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