A Visit to Woolwich
The trial of the two men who proudly claim they killed British soldier Lee Rigby is drawing to a close.

Tributes for Lee Rigby left near the Woolwich Barracks in May, 2013.


John O’Sullivan

More than all these factors, however, he indicted the metropolitan liberal culture that had discouraged the development of any such community standards or even standards within micro-communities (a.k.a. families):

The cultural war waged by moral relativists and liberal self-haters has been hugely successful: they have trashed the place as effectively as any rioter. Authority, whether it be moral, social, familial, or legal, has been chipped away at so relentlessly that it has finally collapsed. It is this, pure and simple, and not the tired excuses about disaffection and poverty, that has led so effortlessly to the burning of pubs and looting of shops.

This cultural war — and it is one over patriotism and the social fabric rather than religious morality — has led also to something else: a widespread but usually hidden distrust of institutions that are seen to embody this destructive and ultimately anarchic stance. Whittle noticed that people in this “white working-class” crowd were reluctant to be interviewed by the BBC and other media crews reporting on the scene.

A BBC Newsnight reporter too saw this reluctance. He speculated that it arose from the belief that the BBC would never actually show how ordinary people actually felt about the murder of Rigby. One woman had said as much and, when he asked what she did think about it, she replied that the murderers should be sent back where they came from.

As Whittle points out, this reply is confused at best; one of those arrested for the murder was born in Britain. But it reflects truly enough the sense most people have that the BBC, the Guardian, and other guardians of liberal orthodoxy almost always deal with questions such as immigration and multiculturalism in favorable, indeed, celebratory, terms. The culturally dispossessed — those who say that their country has been taken away from them — are rarely given a media platform to air their uncensored views. So, as Chesterton wrote, they are a secret people who “have not spoken yet.” They are increasingly aware of that, and so are the various modern establishments, uneasily so. 

*     *     *

Another reaction to this media coverage — one much criticized in the immediate aftermath of the crime — came from Sir Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times, here writing in the Guardian, to the effect that the Woolwich murder was “a mundane act of violence” which our “echo chamber of mass hysteria” had transformed into a significant political act. This brought down a firestorm of hostility on Sir Simon’s distinguished head.

I am less critical than others because Sir Simon probably recalls, as I do, the days when the BBC six o’clock news would end with an item like this: “The police are anxious to meet Mr. Christie of North Kensington in London to help with their inquiries. He is of medium height, bald, speaks with a cockney accent, and was last seen wearing a grey mackintosh and red tie. The public is warned not to approach him, but to contact their local police or to ring Scotland Yard at Whitehall 1212.”

This was the opposite of mass hysteria, namely a careful understatement designed not to interfere with a subsequent fair trial. But it had a kind of cool impressiveness because the listeners knew it was backed up by efficient policing and tough sentencing. The bald man of medium height with a cockney accent was usually on the gallows a month or two later.

The police proved efficient at Woolwich. They arrived at the scene of the crime and, after an exchange of gunfire, soon had the wounded alleged murderers in custody. But few people expected the murderers to receive condign punishment. In practice, murderers who get “life” are released after eight or ten years. Public outrage may keep these particular murderers inside for longer, as it did the Moors Murderer, Myra Hindley. But in this case there was no real confidence in such an outcome on the part of ordinary Brits.

That’s one reason why, contra Sir Simon, the “echo chamber of mass hysteria” in response to the murder was justified. When justice is uncertain and diffident, public opinion will be correspondingly loud and angry. The anger is directed towards the murderers; the indignation towards the authorities. Ordinary people retain at least some of the cultural self-confidence that the elites have lost. And they don’t like being governed by people who almost willfully lack authority.

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The other reason is that the murder of Drummer Rigby was transparently not your ordinary, regular, “mundane” act of violence. How many murderers stop buses in order to have the passengers take photographs of their brutal handiwork? Or give vaguely political speeches to smart-phone cameras? Or wait for the police to arrive?

Whatever else it was, this was a political murder. And a political murder is worse than an ordinary decent crime (to borrow Belfast vocabulary) because its victims include all law-abiding citizens in addition to, here, the slain soldier and his family. It is an announcement to everyone that the murderer and his confederates intend to change the people’s way of life “by any means necessary.” It implies a long and violent conflict.


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