If the motive was not terror, why call it terrorism?

The police have reported, after extensive although still incomplete enquiries, that the motives of the Westminster attacker may never be known and that there is no currently traceable link to anyone else, let alone a terrorist organisation. Yet newspapers and broadcasters continue to churn out columns and op-eds, sometimes thinly disguised as news, about the implications of “terror” being unleashed at the gates of Parliament. 
Simon Jenkins wisely pointed out on Newsnight that terrorism depends to a large extent on people reacting with terror, so that media reactions which treat any horrific crime as an act of terrorism in effect aid and abet terrorism. Others have pointed out that when the IRA was bombing London we did not react with blanket suspicion of their co-nationals or co-religionists but understood that a specific minority organisation was responsible. But now it seems any violent crime committed by a Moslem wins automatic promotion to terrorism, with the characteristic reaction of extended media coverage mingled with self congratulation that we are bravely unmoved by such a violation.
This is just ignorance. Nothing can of course detract from the awfulness of the murders and in particular the genuine horror of their seemingly random nature. The police are absolutely right to explore every possibility of collusion or conspiracy. But the media and the public are not. By creating and promoting fear and suspicion where none are justified by any evidence this reaction hands an unlooked for victory to real terrorists. We should not forget that the object of terrorism is only partly to disrupt everyday life, it is as much about causing suspicion and doubt in the target society, so that different groups turn on each other. But yet we seem to be willing to do that job ourselves.
Here’s what we know. The Westminster murderer was nominally a Moslem. He was definitely not an immigrant or a foreign national. He deliberately killed at least four people, we don’t know why or even whether he thought he would survive the incident. His motive might have had some misguided roots in religion, it might have been another sort of political protest, it might have been a bid for the celebrity of infamy, it might have been the result of mental unbalance however caused, or something else – we don’t know.
Separately of course we know that there are some religious believers who interpret their religion as requiring them to commit murder. But after extensive police enquiries this murderer was not one of them as far as we know. If he had been nominally a Christian or a Hindu would we assume that he belonged to a radical violent splinter group of Christians or Hindus? There have been some belated comments from the police that he was “interested” in jihad – despite there being no obvious connection with jihadist groups, as if someone were concerned that they should not let go of the theme. He was a man with a history of criminal violence who committed a violent crime.
Armed police defending Parliament reacted quickly and properly and the attacker died. If he had been captured, what would have the charge? If the atrocity on the bridge had not been followed by the murder of a policeman the killer might have been charged with nothing worse than causing death by dangerous driving as in other examples of deadly kerb mounting. This emphasises a fault in our laws rather than offering any excuse for the killer, for surely the deaths on the bridge were murderous is every meaningful sense. But this is not a fault involving a gap in anti-terrorist measures or requiring more surveillance or curtailment of everyday freedoms.
Terrorism is a real threat, but one which has been with us for centuries. Despite media hyperbole it does not threaten our way of life because it never approaches that scale but certainly it threatens individuals’ safety from random and cowardly attacks. It poses the most danger however when it is seized on as an excuse for violent political reaction, as in the Sarajevo assassination which sparked the First World War. Provoking political and popular reaction against the innocent in the hope of polarising and splitting society is indeed one of the objectives of terrorism. 
But even genuine terrorism need not be accepted as an excuse for mass hysteria, for media and political scare-mongering masquerading as sober reflection on real tragedy or for any kind of religious, ideological or racial witch hunt. If we allow it to be used as such an excuse, we are the authors of our own terror. Worse, if we treat every instance of random violence as terror, we will end up as slaves, not to those who commit acts of terror but to governments which exploit our fears.

One thought on “If the motive was not terror, why call it terrorism?”

  1. I could not agree more. We are indeed largely the authors of our own angst, and we suffer from the media, driven by a 24-hour agenda and a need to find news, which love to ramp up fear and anxiety. We need, as a society, to develop a more robust attitude. Wouldn’t it be great, though, to have a senior politician who would stand up and say: “Yes, this is awful, but we are going to get on with our lives.”

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