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 likely, they would encounter hostility and violence in prison. And while they must be protected against brutality, they should be exposed to criticism, education, and the knowledge of how decent people view what they did. One ultimate aim of imprisoning them should be to move them to feel deep shame at what they did and to admit this shame publicly.

If it makes people happier, we can call this rehabilitation.

*     *     *

But it seems that I was over-optimistic, or at least premature, in hoping for any moral awakening on their part. We have seen them in the last two weeks now that their day in court has finally come around.

The trial itself can hardly have surprises in the Perry Mason sense of new evidence that overturns expectations. All the essential facts were known in advance, and the judge is mainly occupied in ensuring that the defendants get all the procedural protections of English law. But the details of the murder — and the video recordings of it — still have the power to shock. Rigby’s mother and sister had to run in tears from the court to avoid seeing him deliberately run down by a car driven by the two defendants before they went on to cut him up with knives and cleavers.

After seeing these clips, the court heard the defendants justify their actions. That was, if anything, even more shocking. Both gave essentially the same defense: They were soldiers carrying out the will of Allah and had chosen Rigby in the belief that, Inshallah, he was a soldier too: “I’m a soldier. I’m a soldier of Allah and I understand that some people might not recognise this because we do not wear fatigues and we do not go to the Brecon Beacons and train and this sort of thing. But we are still soldiers in the sight of Allah as a mujahid.”

This dreary, wooden rote justification ought not to be hard to undermine and over time to eradicate from their minds. The very essence of a soldier is that he identifies himself as one by wearing a uniform and making himself vulnerable to attack in a known conflict. He doesn’t just run over someone out for an afternoon stroll in the hope that he might be killing a serviceman. That kind of action is less soldiering than either a war crime or terrorism.

The trial is expected to end later this week. Only the final speeches of the defense and the prosecution and the judge’s legal summing up remain. It seems reasonable to speculate that, although everyone is innocent until proven guilty, they will have a long time to think about such distinctions. 

And what of the wider question? In order to summon up the moral courage to mount a policy of patriotic rehabilitation, the British people will first have to undergo it themselves. The crowds placing flowers at Woolwich suggest that there is an appetite for it among ordinary Brits. Or was that a “one-off”? Will it be forgotten by the next news cycle?

*     *     *

I said a short prayer in front of the Woolwich memorials, and returned to central London. My walk from Green Park station took me through St. James’s Square, where in 1984 a Libyan “diplomat” fired a shot that killed policewoman Yvonne Fletcher. There’s a memorial to her by the park just opposite the corporate headquarters that used to house the Libyan embassy.

Usually there are many flowers around it, but that morning there was just a single withered bouquet. A security guard told me that flowers are removed at regular intervals and just as regularly replaced. “The police have a ceremony every April on the anniversary of her murder,” he told me. “The chief of the Metropolitan Police gives a speech. Other organizations hold ceremonies too. It’s quite an active memorial.”

So there is hope. Restoring pride and memory are the first steps towards recovering the kind of liberal British patriotism that will assimilate those minorities that at present are either hostile to or simply disconnected from British identity.

Maybe the BBC would be a good place to start.

 — John O’Sullivan is an editor-at-large of National Review. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Hungarian Review.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review