Drummer Lee Rigby, 25 years old, was walking down a street in South London, heading back to his barracks, when the two men drove a car into him. Drummer Rigby, who had done tours of duty in Afghanistan, was pinned down by the two men. They then attempted to decapitate and disembowel him with knives and a meat cleaver. Passing members of the public looked on in horror.
While they were decapitating Drummer Rigby they men shouted "Allahu Akhbar" ["Allah is Greater" -- than whom is left implied]. Both men were Muslims of African extraction. Both had been living in Britain. Both were affiliated with a group that many of us have warned about for years – Anjem Choudary's group Al-Muhajiroun. So much in this attack was predictable. It fitted a pattern of radicalization and opportunism that we have seen, and some of us have foreseen, for years. Yet so much about it appears to be unsayable in Britain.
Anyone who can manage to watch the press conference with the Rigby family that took place on Friday will know there are many things very wrong in this proceeding. The act itself has stunned an entire nation. But the response of our political and commentator class has been lacking at precisely the moment they have been most needed.
Everyone has been in agreement, of course, that what occurred was a brutal and appalling act. But the British people owe it to Drummer Rigby, who served his country in many places yet was killed on his own streets, to understand what has happened.
Already there is a deep unwillingness to do this, proven by a whole range of people from the Prime Minister down. David Cameron declared that the attack was "not just an attack on Britain – and on the British way of life. It was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act."
There are good reasons – now that Britain has right-wing street-protest movements of its own – to attempt to dampen potential flare-ups of violence in the immediate aftermath of an attack. But so completely to misrepresent the ideology of the extremists is not only to ignore the startlingly obvious, it is to risk further enraging extremists on any and all sides.
That is, politicians. Perhaps they have to speak in a particular way. But the amazing thing has been seeing journalists refuse – utterly refuse – even to acknowledge that there exists any motivation behind such an attack. From the left-wing Guardian to the right-wing Telegraph, there has been a consistent effort to misread the atrocity. A huge number of commentators, for instance, insisted that the acts were simply "senseless" or "pointless." One described it as "confusing, horrific, bizarre – the horror that made literally no sense." He rambled on like this for paragraphs of endlessly limp, self-pitying yet not self-questioning prose.
Do these people believe what they write? I am not sure that they do. There is something so willful in their posture that it cannot be caused by simple ignorance. And somewhere underneath this is a further fear. It is not a fear of terrorists. It is not even the fear of facing up to terrorists. It is a fear of what will happen if you do face up to them.
The two men who slaughtered Drummer Rigby used the lull before the police arrived to explain to cameras – a truly bizarre modern twist, with meat-cleavers in hand – why they had done what they had done. They said the murder had to do with British troops being in "our lands." Although the men spoke in a London accent, the lands they were talking about were not the streets of London. These men were not speaking as British men. They were speaking as – and wanted to be understood as – Muslims. Certainly they are fundamentalist Muslims, and certainly most Muslims would condemn them. But they had got to the place they had got to by a process which is familiar, predictable and, by their own lights, not insane.
And here is the problem for us and our society. There now exists a greater fear of causing offense than a desire to tell truths. This is not something new among politicians, but it is new for it to be so rampant in the free press. These are people who are literally trying not to see the story and not to admit what the story is. So they become distracted and self-censoring -- willfully. The BBC's Nick Robinson has been forced to apologize after mentioning at an early stage in the attacks that the two men were of "Muslim appearance." A country that seeks to deflect itself from the butchery of one of its soldiers by jihadists by engaging in a round of "did someone say something racist?" seems to me to be a country in a serious amount of trouble.
The whole country honours Drummer Rigby. But it not only dishonours him, but dishonours our nation, to see in his brutal death not an aggressive ideology with clear aims, but a mere nothingness. This was not an attack that made "no sense." It was an attack that made plenty of sense and had been whipped up, as well as aspired to, by others for many years. What makes "no sense" is for a country to continue to ignore that fact, and hope, by ignoring it, to pretend it away.