With the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower hanging still in the sky above west London, Cardiff father-of-four Darren Osborne took it upon himself to turn the UK back towards culture and racial division, with a van attack on worshipers at Finsbury Park mosque in east London. One person has died after the attack, and 10 were injured, the death toll may well rise. Osborne, detained by members of the crowd, was said to have been saved from serious injury by an imam, who prevented the crowd from laying into him. He was heard to yell that he wanted to “kill all Muslims” or “kill more Muslims” or possibly both. Perhaps his attack will be followed by copycat attacks, or by revenge attacks, or both, or not.
No one really knows or has much capacity to gauge the level of potential violence out there. One thing can be said. Over the past two months, London has been changed. Whether it wanted to or not, and no matter how many “keep calm and carry on” posters, memes, coffee cups circulate, the city had now had not only a wave of violence, but of different types of violence, all in a short period. Perhaps this sort of cluster will not happen again for a while, but that’s of no matter. Such violence cannot be dismissed as an aberration. London is a contested, violent city — as, to a degree, is Paris.
That is not necessarily an abnormal condition for cities, especially if you remove the descriptive distinction between terrorist violence and violence of other sorts. American cities from the ’60s to the ’90s, Belfast, Derry and many Italian cities in the 1970s, Jakarta in the 1960s, US southern cities in the 1930s, Berlin in the 1920s — and fast-forwarding to many Latin American cities now. The modern city is a place of contested orders and parallel regimes. The wonder of much of the recent period is not how much violence there is, but how little. With the imperial West — the US, UK and France — having now spent nearly two decades bombing and waging war in west Asian Muslim lands, it is astounding that its cities are not now subject to a sort of civil war. Even allowing for foiled plots, the number of people intent on unleashing atrocious jihadi violence in Western cities remains infinitesimal, about one person in a quarter million. Imagine if it was occurring at the merely incredibly uncommon, say, one person in 10,000. Then London, and other cities, would be at the sort of war somewhere like Belfast was in the ’70s, with daily killings and conflicts, troops, barbed wire, internments, raids, etc.
Belfast. Or Baghdad. For what cannot be denied is that the character of Western imperial cities is changing in line with the cities they destroyed in waging war, and in the same way. London is not, of course, visited by anything like the same level of mayhem as Baghdad, but, well, random killings by two “sides” of a conflict, suicide bombers, and a burnt-out concrete block of flats on the horizon — you’d have to say that Londoners are getting a taste of what a contested city feels like.
Will such disorders simply bubble along at this level indefinitely? Or is something more in the offing? The official line of the West is that the motives of jihadi terrorists can be easily divined: they are religious fanatics with an idea of a theocratic society so repressive and joyless that, in both means and ends, it counts as a sort of nihilism. Because it is such an omega point of political meaning, a black hole, it has no dialogue with the politics around it, no aims that could be reasonably replied to. That is simplistic propaganda, as it applies to many such Western killers. Its aim is to license imperial foreign policy, while disciplining its own subject population to accept a level of mayhem as part of the war effort.
Little spoken of in any discussion of such Western jihadism is the different sources of news and information they rely on, via satellite TV and the internet. The Western media has been scrubbed clean of any coverage of war in Afghanistan and Syria. You’d barely know we were there, let alone conducting ongoing operations. Yet this is particularly important, because such conflicts have changed since Donald Trump took office. The relatively tighter restrictions on rules of engagement imposed by President Barack Obama have been lifted; the civilian casualties are mounting. Obama’s drone campaigns involved civilian casualties — but since many of them were families of jihadi groups, separate from (and often oppressive of) other local populations, sympathy was limited; this was part of Obama’s strategy. Trump has returned to old-fashioned colonial discipline, racist in its indifference to who is getting bombed. Such brutality acts as a call, a challenge to a small number of people: acts of violence that cannot be allowed to pass unavenged. It is not the whole story, and people are right to point to contemporary alienation, identity annihilation and the lure of fanatical death as a source for jihadi violence. But to suggest that each does not reinforce the other is ridiculous.
That would suggest that such contestation will not be over anytime soon, and it may get considerably worse. Eventually perhaps, news outlets on mainstream channels may have no choice but to make the connection between Western foreign policy and the war at home.
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But it may not be the only source of “contestation” on offer soon. The Finsbury Park truck attack is one of dozens, hundreds of attacks on UK Muslims over past years. But it’s one of the first that has been choreographed to be a spectacle of terror. In its wake English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson has called for the formation of white militias, and for the armed “defence” of whites against Muslims. Since Robinson is part of the Canadian media outfit “The Rebel”, which is now represented in Australia by Mark Latham, such fascist squaddist rhetoric is now being spread here. Since Latham is now explicitly branding his output as part of the “Rebel” stable, it would seem he is willing to be fully associated with such sentiments and urgings.
Beyond that economic, rather than cultural, conflict may become a source of conflict. Grenfell Tower on the London horizon should be a reminder of that. While attention turned to the Finsbury Park event, a spectacle with some violence attached, the death toll from Grenfell was ratcheted up from 58 to 79. Does anyone really doubt it will hit triple figures? This is an event of such stupendous violence and human loss that it cannot yet be fully appreciated. By now many have read about the 26-year-old Italian architect and her boyfriend, who made a series of calls and texts home, in full awareness that she was about to die horrifically, missing out on the life she had anticipated. The story is nearly impossible to read to the end.
The anger glows white hot at that, even half a world away. There are some events that cross a boundary, that demand militant action as an act of political assertion. Something more than a protest, more than a march, more than an occupation. Furthermore there is, within limits, a moral justification for such action, if it has a focused political purpose. At some point, replying to what appears to being wanton, negligent killing with the techniques of mass non-confrontational organisation becomes a form of passivity. I would suspect that we are not far away from a different form of militancy, a different form of contestation, coming from different sources, on the streets of Western cities, and people will be called on to make their political and moral judgements accordingly. Long after the Finsbury Park attack, and even the Borough Market attack have faded in the memory, the image of Grenfell Tower will remain burnt into the sky above London. A dark anti-pole star for whatever is to come.