Woolwich will always be close to my heart. I was born there. I got married there. I remember going shopping there as a kid, going to the cinema there as a teenager, passing through it countless times as an adult. The events yesterday were shocking, appalling. My thoughts are with everyone affected.
Woolwich feels in some way like a town of loss, a place that has suffered decline, misfortune and horror for many, many years. It once housed a royal dockyard, that closed. It was the proud home of the Royal Arsenal, until it was slowly wound down and eventually closed, taking away the area’s major industry and source of employment. On a more trivial level, it once had a football club, Woolwich Arsenal, who moved north and dropped the first part of its name.
And yet in recent years Woolwich has tried to move beyond this past, tried to arrest the decline. The town square has been reworked to be far more appealing that the alcoholics-and-rats magnet it once was. There is a new council centre with library. A new Tesco, which may have divided opinion but has brought in jobs. The buildings attacked and burnt down in the riots have been rebuilt. Woolwich even hosted Olympic and Paralympic events.
Yesterday’s events won’t stop that progress. There is clearly a determination in local government and amongst residents to make Woolwich a better place. Improved transport links and building projects and the like will help, but so will the mentality of people. Watching the footage yesterday I was struck by the women protecting the dead soldier’s body, those who were literally standing up to the murderers. These are the true Woolwich people, not the English Defence League idiots who took this as an excuse to get drunk and start fights with the police, the very same police who had protected us in the first place.
“Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.”
“They were oblivious to anything; they were more worried about having their photo taken, running up and down the road. They had no intention of running off or leaving or anything.”
I feel wary of breaking down such a tragic and horrific incident into an argument around semantics. However, it does feel that politicians and the media have been reasonably quick to label the event as an act of terrorism, when other recent events with different demographics have not been considered as such. This was a complicated act. Simplifying it feels dangerous.
Perhaps it was terrorism, and perhaps that will become clearer in the coming days. There are certainly some hallmarks. Perhaps if we look at the definition: “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes” then we can make a strong case. The attackers were using rhetoric that, it could be argued, was influenced the rhetoric of al-Qaeda. The fact that the attackers remained at the scene and not only conversed with those around them but actively encouraged those passersby to film them suggests a broader objective. They wanted to be seen. They wanted their message heard.
Yet I’m not sure how helpful it is at this point to speculate over how this happened and why. This was a complex act – a frenzied attack followed by a strangely near-calm and composed argument. If we try to reduce this event to buzzwords and scapegoats we will only stoke the fires of the EDLs and Mosque-burners in this country. If we try to simplify the motivations we won’t come any closer to understanding them, nor closer to tackling them so that events like this one do not happen again.
Maybe if we call this a terrorist act we give the perpetrators what they wanted. They will have willed themselves into the place they wanted to be, we will have given them that platform, that near-martyrdom.
The better we understand what is going on, the better we can combat it, by tackling the major issues and stopping this before it begins. Stirring up strong feelings at this stage may just perpetuate the cycle, may just radicalise the vulnerable and the easily led even more. I hope the press and politicians can deal with these events in an intelligent, sophisticated and humane way. That is how we can fight against the terrorists (or whoever they might be) on a day-to-day basis. This is also how we can fight the broader mistrust and prejudice in society. Hopefully. I don’t know.