Thursday, 23 May 2013

Terror and the words we speak

Often the responses to a terror attack is even more notable than the attack itself. As are the words in which they are expressed.

‘I spoke to him for more than five minutes,’ said a woman who approached one of the killers in yesterday’s fatal, meat-cleaver attack on a soldier in Woolwich, South London. ‘I asked him why he had done what he had done.’

Quietly confronting an armed killer
The man she was talking to was still carrying the cleaver and he was bespattered with his victim’s blood. Despite that she showed exemplary courage, as well as calm good sense in asking the one question which really matters and to which we shall never get an adequate answer.

The Prime Minister has also spoken out, repeatedly, and each time has reiterated how ‘shocking’ he finds the event. Well, I think most of us agree. But does it need to be said so often? The aim of terrorists is to terrorise us. Perhaps fewer references to being shocked might give them less of a sense of success.

Much more appealing were the words of a Sikh from the neighbourhood interviewed on the radio this morning. He had been upset by the reaction of the extreme right English Defence League, who within hours were calling demonstrations to demand the return of their streets to them: the attackers were Muslims and therefore from a culture the EDL perceives as alien and to be driven out. The Sikh underlined the fact that though he was Indian, he wasn’t Muslim, and he’d been brought up on those streets – they were his just as much as they were the EDL’s.

What other words did the EDL come up with? Its leader proclaimed ‘They’re chopping our soldiers’ heads off. This is Islam. That’s what we’ve seen today.’

As it happens, no-one had his head chopped off, though apparently the attackers did try to decapitate their victim. But that was one victim. Notice how one soldier has become ‘soldiers’? So a one-off gruesome event is converted, by simple pluralisation, into part of a series of attacks. And then instead of being attributed to two profoundly misled Muslims, it’s attributed to the whole of Islam, even though community leaders up and down the country have denounced the atrocity. That, sadly, did not stop a couple of Mosques being attacked.

The men suspected of killing the soldier have been caught. They seem certain to be convicted of a vile murder and will doubtless spend most or even all of the rest of their lives in gaol. Let’s take that as the right way of dealing with the attack. Let’s not use that crime to fuel an Islamophobic campaign, whose target is one of our most law-abiding communities. Let’s not use it to stoke up the fires of anti-immigrant hatred that are already generating far more than enough heat.

After all, let’s go back to the lady who spoke so calmly to the attackers. Many in Woolwich reacted well to the murder, confronting the men calmly and with courage, and they have been saluted for it. But her case is particularly intriguing.

Her name was Ingrid Loyau-Kennet. The papers took delight in describing her as a ‘British Mum’, but I think the Britishness comes with the ‘Kennet’ part of her name. She explained in a radio interview this morning that she'd been travelling home from France when she made her stop in Woolwich, and both the accent in which she told us the story and the ‘Loyau’ in her name suggest that her roots are French.

That cool courage, in other words, was displayed by one of those immigrants so frequently denounced by the likes of the United Kingdom Independence Party and the English Defence League. And the French have automatic right of residence here thanks to that maligned organisation, the European Union. That’s the union UKIP and the EDL, and many in the Conservative Party, would like us to leave.

She, unlike the Prime Minister or the far right, found the behaviour and the words that were right when confronted with yesterday's horror. For my part, I’d be delighted if we could get a few more Loyau-Kennets here, from France, from Germany, from Poland, from Bulgaria. And I’d be more than happy to send a few EDL and UKIP leaders back the other way in exchange.

But that would be terribly unfair to the countries that had to accept them.

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