Terrorism has long been described as ‘the propaganda of the deed’; I noted this last August (‘Terrorism, Murder and Madness’). It is a description that comes from Nineteenth Century Russian theorists of political violence, who were persistently intent on bringing down the Czarist regime. Since then, it has provided a potent method of getting the message across for a wide range of activist groups, down to the present time, and there is every reason to think that it will continue into the indefinite future.
However, it may be worth noting the essential part that the media play in facilitating the ‘message’, and even ask whether the exposure that is commonly given to these incidents does not add to the extent of the problem. In the recent Woolwich (London) case, we even had members of the public helping, by recording an interview with one of the murderers, before the media could get there. It is notable, too, that both of the perpetrators of this atrocity hung around until the police came. I take it that this was to ensure that their final ‘martyrdom’ would also be recorded. Hats-off to the police, for not accommodating them in this respect.
Of course, there is a major difficulty in contemplating any limitation on the press in its reporting of events, or even suggesting that it might restrain itself. The unfettered exercise of press freedom is a bulwark of democracy. In general terms, it needs to be defended, as I argued in a previous posting. On the other hand, there may be some potential for limiting the extent of media cooperation with the terrorist’s project, in the interests of victims to come. A simple factual reportage, without sensational description, or visual illustration might reduce the attractiveness of terrorism as a political tool. Certainly, we might question the desirability of actually providing the terrorist with a soap-box for his message, whilst his victim lies mutilated in the background.
To this point, I have been assuming that the incident in south London is, indeed, ‘terrorism’ and deserves our condemnation on that account. But we need to note that the victim in this case was a serving soldier and that the UN definition of terrorism, adopted in 2005, speaks of deliberate ‘harm to civilians or non-combatants’. Drummer Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was clearly not a civilian but it is equally clear that, at the material time, he was not a ‘combatant’. Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 offers the crucial test here. A combatant is someone who is ‘participating in hostilities’. Drummer Rigby, returning to barracks from leave was manifestly not doing this. This judgement accords with the underlying rationale. What makes a participant in conflict liable to be harmed is that he is a threat to others. It is essentially the principal of self-defence. On these grounds what happened in Woolwich was, indeed, ‘terrorism’. It was also, of course, a crime.
There is another aspect to all this. What are we to say of the assailants in this tragic case, beyond that they are terrorists (and criminals)? Well, we could say that they were ‘enemy combatants’. Michael Adebolajo (he of the bloody hands) has more or less accepted this himself. ‘We fight you as you fight us’, he said in his post-shooting ‘interview’ given to an accommodating member of the public. He was British-born (a convert to Islam) but sees himself as an enemy and is acting in accordance with his newly-acquired loyalty. It does raise the question of what he is doing, still in the United Kingdom. From his point of view, he is carrying on a war. But what is he doing in the UK, from the point of view of British authorities? We now know that British security services were ‘aware of him’ (and others that they have now arrested). Indeed they would have been aware that, not long before, he had attempted to sign on for fundamentalist insurgent action in Somalia with al Shabaab. So why was he free?
Was it an application of the old English Common Law principle that ‘every dog is allowed his first bite’ (otherwise he might be falsely condemned)? If that is the sentiment, understandable though it is, it might need to be examined. As always, there is a trade-off between the protection of the human rights of individuals and the security of society as a whole. That will mean that those who appear to have espoused a cause, which represents a threat, need to be carefully watched. If they are aliens, they need to be deported. If they are citizens they may need to be detained. Certainly, they should not be treated on the basis that they are entitled to ‘a first bite’ (and afterwards, a public pulpit). As President Bush pointed out, there is a war on. Perhaps enemy combatants, and especially illegal combatants, should not be free.