Tuesday, 28 May 2013


I've spent a few days wondering what on earth there is to say about the horrible murder in Woolwich, and the ultimately pretty distasteful political wranglings that have followed it.  In a way, adding another voice to the cacophony isn't very helpful.

But what puzzled me most about the political reaction to the incident was why this counted as terrorism. On the one hand, why focus so much on this when homicide rates in London are high and stabbings all too common?  And on the other hand, why describe this as terrorism when the victim was a soldier (albeit off-duty)?  An article by Glenn Greenwald gave me some interesting answers to these questions, arguing that the problematic and actually very hypocritical designation of this killing as an act of terrorism is tempting for politicians because it packs such a 'political, cultural and emotional punch'.  And, of course, because the perpetrators are deemed to fail to abide by the rules of war (notably in targetting non-combatants), terrorists are answerable to the rules of ordinary criminal law, rather than the laws of wartime which permit killing.

This last point strikes me as perhaps the most revealing one here.  Law is very often a function of power.  What better way of asserting authority both practically and symbolically than through the exercise of law?  How law and power are intertwined is more complex however, but it strikes me that one of the most effective mechanisms for bringing this about, is to convince people that law and morality are the same thing.  They're not - of course - but conflating the two makes law an incredibly powerful (and reassuring) tool.  

William de Brailes, The Israelites Worship the Golden Calf and Moses Breaks the Tablets (Exodus 32:1-19), Walters Art Museum, W.106.13R

In the later Middle Ages, this elision of law and morality was certainly one which kings, as lawgivers, attempted to make.  But it was harder to convince people, because there were so many different kinds of law - in England for example, there was common law, customary laws, ecclesiastical law, forest law, maritime law, the laws of war, and so on.  Which set of legal rules applied depended on place, context, and who was involved.  Faced with such a diverse set of laws to choose from, in many ways it was far more obvious that law was a changing and historically contingent thing, far removed from what was supposed to be the more constant nature of morality.  Lawgivers couldn't pretend to exercise the same moral hegemony and control.

My point is that nowadays, it is less obvious that there are lots of types of law.  And therefore, we are all the more ready to accept the conflation of law and morality uncritically, without thinking about the political drive of much of the use of law.  But this is delusional - there are still different types of law - and these are manipulated in order to shape our reactions to particular acts and to help us to brush others under the carpet.  So, on the one hand, political discourse is anxious to convince us that law and morality are the same and that our reactions are not just legal but righteous.  And on the other hand, that same discourse uses the diversity of types of law (here criminal law and laws of wars) to choose which morality should apply to particular cases.  There is a gap in our thinking, and thinking critically about it might help underline some of our double standards.

On the laws of war in the Middle Ages, see the seminal book by Maurice Keen.

Postscript: interestingly, Michael Adebowale has been charged with murder rather than terrorism offences after all (30th May).  In terms of rejecting the horrific violence he carried out, this strikes me as a far more effective response than acknowledging that he has some kind of political platform by categorising him as a terrorist.

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