At about two in the afternoon last Wednesday, a guy was murdered in the town of Woolwich in southeast London. The murder was particularly grisly and not the kind of news I normally follow, but I’d been through Woolwich for the first time on the previous Saturday, so I guess I was a little more interested. I watched a few seconds of the assailant addressing the camera of an onlooker (apparently he’d asked to be filmed). He was holding a butcher’s knife and his hands were covered with blood. To be honest, I can’t remember what he said exactly. I just remember thinking that clearly this person is deranged.
In the past few days, though, there has been subtle change in grammar. Now the story seems to be that this person has been deranged. He has been linked with Islamist groups in Britain and presumably inculcated into a radical belief system that could lead him to this act. He was known to the police as a member of a now banned group and had participated in protests at police stations. The crime is now considered a terrorist act. It’s certainly terrifying to think that there could be any number of people out there with an immense reservoir of amorphous hate that could be manifest in such a savage way.
We think of terrorism as a way of attacking systems, but this crime was so personal, intimate even, that I can’t wrap my head around its ideological foundation. I read about this attack and I can only think that a mentally unstable person has done something monstrous. Did his mental instability lead to his being attracted to a radical fundamentalist group? Did this politico-religious group turn him into a murderer?
I imagine I’m ill-prepared for such intellectual heavy lifting. My heart breaks in too many pieces when I see this kind of tragedy—ruined lives, heartbroken families. It’s awful for everyone. I know I’m supposed to see a monster created by an opportunistic proselytizer, but despite my carefully cultivated misanthropy, I still see a human. A violently disturbed and tragic human.
Isn’t ideology the anchor for the mentally unstable, for those who cannot deal with the chaos of life and try to impose their view on reality?
It can be dangerous to assume or [need to] assert that the perpetrators of horrible violence, like this incident, are or must be mentally unbalanced/unstable. Watching the video, which was chilling in its normality, there was nothing irrational about Adebowale’s thinking; nothing veered off into the delusional or psychotic. Ideology also drives the non-ill, the seemingly- and conventionally-rational to do horrific things—lynching in the US is an example that comes immediately to mind. Horrible, monstrous, and in pictures in front of the horror are disturbingly-normal white people who believe they have tackled one of the monsters that plague their lives and keep them down, etc….In terms of Adebowale, he is a young man, a human, a point we must not forget, and that point is so uncomfortable because we, too, are human, and if he is human and can do that, what might we, or others, do? The complex truth is more frightening than a monster, which is why we turn to monsters and monster narratives.