Debate: Is it right to call the murder in Woolwich a ‘terrorist attack’?



What's going on?

A barbaric act of violence horrified the nation yesterday afternoon as two men attacked and murdered an off duty soldier in Woolwich, apparently attempting to behead the victim before inviting passersby to film them.

One of the apparent attackers, recorded in footage broadcast by ITV still holding a knife and cleaver, invoked British involvement in overseas wars as justification: "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you".

But is David Cameron right to call this a "terrorist" attack?

Case for: Fear

The motivation here was not personal, it was public. These two men wanted to strike fear into British society, to strike a blow for whatever warped version of religion it is they subscribe to. The confession one man gave to camera - telling viewers "You will never be safe. Remove your government" - also conforms precisely to MI5's definition of terrorism, "the use of force to influence the government...or intimidate the public". Yes, there have been other vicious butcheries on British streets; but none so avowedly political.

Case against: Lunatic

What's the difference between a terrorist and a lunatic? By calling this a "terrorist" attack, not only do you carry forward the message the attackers set out to convey - doing their work for them - you do so without applying sufficient scepticism. Earlier this month Mohammed Saleem, 75, was murdered by a white man in what police fear was a racist attack. Is the attacker a terrorist? He may well subscribe to an ideology similarly warped, albeit in a different direction, as the Woolwich attackers. Terrorism exists. But we need to be careful how the word is used, at the risk of amplifying what is in fact sheer sadism.