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Monday, February 16, 2015 

Still an aberration, not a pattern.

The weekend's attacks in Copenhagen bear the hallmarks not of a fresh assault by jihadis trained overseas so much as those of copycats.  The distinction is important, regardless of the end result being the murder of two people, with the attacker, unofficially named as Omar El-Hussein, clearly wanting to kill as many as possible at the cafe hosting the free speech event, including Lars Vilks, the Swedish cartoonist responsible for one of the caricatures of Muhammad printed by Jyllands-Posten in 2005.

From what has so far been written about El-Hussein, a 22-year-old born in Denmark with Palestinian heritage, he appears to have been a petty criminal likely to have been radicalised, or perhaps merely preyed upon in prison.  Released just two weeks ago, he doesn't seem to have travelled outside of Europe, nor does he appear to have attempted to contact the media as the Charlie Hebdo attackers and Amédy Coulibaly did.  The Kouachi brothers were calm and resolute in the way they carried out their massacre, whereas El-Hussein seems to have "sprayed and prayed".  There has also so far been no claim of responsibility, nor was there a claim from El-Hussein himself to anyone who might have been listening that he was attacking on behalf of any particular group.

This doesn't of course mean that El-Hussein wasn't by proxy acting for either say, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has particular reasons for attacking Denmark, or Islamic State, but it would surprise massively if he wasn't first and foremost carrying out deeds suggested by those he developed links with in prison.  That he apparently became known to the Danish intelligence services due to his spell of incarceration is a further indication of this.  It's not an impossibility he was acting of his own volition, perhaps on just the suggestion of carrying out an attack and he improvised, influenced by the attacks in France, but the slight period of time between his release and his actions would seem to rule out his being a true "lone wolf".  All the same, if this was a planned attack, in the sense of targeting Vilks, it wasn't planned to anywhere near the extent the Charlie Hebdo massacre was, nor was it implemented with the same ruthlessness.  The real constant is the targeting after the "main" assault of Jews, the singling out of a visible community purely down to religious and racial hatred, as well as to incite further terror.

Most of the comment has then concentrated on this continued threat to Jewish communities, rather than on freedom of expression once again coming under attack.  Some of this reticence could also, you have to suspect, be due to the release of audio from the cafe, with Inna Shevchenko, a representative of the Femen protest group making a point rendered all the more powerful by what follows.  “It’s about freedom of speech, but. The key word here is 'but’.  Why do we still continue to say but when we...”  Then gunshots ring out.

There were more than a few people saying but just over a month ago, or words to that effect.   Just this weekend Will Self was repeating how in his view satire is meant to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable".  Self doesn't need any lectures on how the likes of Hogarth were equally at home targeting the powerful as they were the drinkers of Gin Lane, just as so many other satirists and writers have turned their pencils and inks against those both worthy and in the view of the Selfs, unworthy of mockery.  My own view of satire has always been the best sort is uncomfortable to everyone, both the target and those viewing it, precisely because as much as satire needs at times to be obvious, wounding to the pompous, it also needs to challenge those who think themselves different.

Another way to do the equivalent of saying but is to bring in false comparisons and other equivocations.  Not since the murder last week of three young students, all Muslims, in North Carolina has there been the slightest piece of evidence produced to suggest they were killed because of their faith, rather than being yet more victims of a violent man with easy access to firearms.  This hasn't stopped those with axes to grind from ignoring the actual people who lived alongside the victims and their killer, who said they were all scared of him and that he complained habitually about his neighbours, especially when his Facebook page was filled with a screed against religion.  You don't however expect the Guardian editorial to draw a link, as much as you do the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain.  Claiming the North Carolina murders were an attack on freedom is completely absurd, yet such it seems is the continued nervousness of admitting a tiny minority of those calling themselves Muslims are prepared to kill in "defence" of their religion without wringing hands and saying yes, but you know, a lot of people are equally hate-filled.

Just as absurd is Binyamin Netanayhu once again in the wake of the attack on the Copenhagen synagogue doing the equivalent of saying "Israel is so bracing".  I thought for a moment about then adding something about wiping the blood off his hands, but (yes, that word) to so much as include blood and an Israeli leader in the same sentence is to be antisemitic in the view of some.  You could if you so wished calculate the number of Jews killed across Europe in acts of racial hatred over the past few years with the number of Jews killed in attacks in Israel, it's just there is no comparison so there's not much point.  As Keith Kahn-Harris exceptionally puts it, those who would murder Jews do not make distinctions between them, and the calls from Israeli politicians, designed as they are to appeal to a domestic audience with elections in the offing do precisely that, intended to or otherwise.

All the same, it's worth asking exactly what else EU leaders should have done to further protect Jewish citizens, after Rabbi Menachem Margolin said not enough had been.  Two attacks, despite Netanayhu's comments, is still an aberration rather than a pattern.  When you have so many claiming it's only a matter of time before something happens along the same lines in other European capitals, the obvious danger is of self-fulfilling prophecy, of inspiring further copyists, of overreaction and diluting other freedoms taken for granted, more so than we already have that of expression.  Seeing patterns where there isn't one yet is to fall into their trap, just as it is to condemn while saying but. 

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