Viewpoint: Woolwich murder

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Professor Jon Cole is part of the Tactical Decision Making Research Group at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Psychological Sciences.

“Yet again the UK’s involvement in overseas conflicts will be perceived as the cause of a terrorist attack. The perpetrators of yesterday’s attack in Woolwich were recorded making statements about the retribution they were seeking for what has happened elsewhere. Before we rush to judgment about the ‘blowback’ effect of UK foreign Policy it is important to understand the basis of this narrative.

“Killing people is not easy”

“Killing people is not easy despite the huge amount of media that portray killing giving the opposite impression. The most famous study of killing by ordinary people was conducted by the US Army during WWII. In this study it was found that very few combat soldiers actually fired their weapons at the enemy despite the lethal threat posed by the enemy. During combat the rest of the soldiers were doing other things.

“This research resulted in an overhaul of military training so that by the time of the Vietnam War virtually all combat personnel were using their weapons in firefights.  Our research into human conflict has indicated that there are several ‘killing enabling factors’ that reduce the apparently innate reluctance to kill in the majority of people.

“The attackers themselves have provided us with the most important factor, which is justification. Killing has to be legitimate and the legitimacy of conflict is extremely important to combatants. In this case, the narrative of a defensive Jihad to defend the Ummah is the employment of the standard justification for Islamist terror attacks.

”To the killers the killing makes sense as part of a global struggle in which they believe themselves to be soldiers. The choice of another soldier as a target only supports this justification”

“To the killers the killing makes sense as part of a global struggle in which they believe themselves to be soldiers. The choice of another soldier as a target only supports this justification. A common criticism of bombings is that the majority of the victims are illegitimate targets.

“It is noteworthy that there were two attackers as diffusion of responsibility is also very important in killing. The US Army study found that crew served weapons were the ones that were more likely to be used against the enemy as the presence of others appeared to make the individual less responsible for the consequences.

“Again the narrative of the attackers suggests this mechanism at work through the use of the oft quoted ‘an eye for an eye’ principle. In this sense, it is our responsibility as much as it is theirs.

“Probably the most important driver of the attack was martyrdom. For some the allure of achieving more in death than they ever would in life is overwhelming. The 24 hour news agenda has obliged them by transmitting footage of the attack. It is not surprising that they wanted the attack filmed and for witnesses to report what they said on social media and other outlets.

“Propaganda by the deed”

“The fact that they waited for the police to arrive is also not surprising. For them being killed by the Police would ensure that they became shaheed so they no doubt caused a ‘provoked shooting’ or ‘suicide by cop’ incident.

“Attacks on off duty soldiers have been planned in the past and will no doubt be planned in the future. For example, Abu Mansha was convicted in 2006 for plotting to kill a British soldier who had been decorated for bravery in Iraq, after reading media stories about his exploits. As terrorism is considered ‘propaganda by the deed’ the oxygen of publicity will no doubt keep this a live issue for some time to come.”

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3 thoughts on “Viewpoint: Woolwich murder

    1. James McGuire

      Edward, for some reason I just looked back at this today, and saw your comment. Thank you, you are right of course, and I shouldn’t have made such a sweeping statement. I think the Ottomans got close to Vienna some time in the middle ages too. If you know of any other instances please let me know. But I hope that does not detract too much from the point I was trying to make – the Moorish invasion was 1300 years ago, and there have been a lot more incursions by us into what is regarded as their region than the other way round.

      By the way, the research cited by Dr Cole about American soldiers in World War II being unwilling to shoot people was completely discredited several years ago. It carries no weight whatever in discussions of these issues today. Best wishes, James.

  1. James McGuire

    I cannot claim any expertise on the mental states or personal objectives of the men who perpetrated the Woolwich atrocity. Like you I’m a psychologist but I think politics may have more to do with this horrendous event than you seem to be imagining.

    First, by way of context, it’s worth noting, though you would never get to know it from the British media, that only a very small proportion of the terrorist events throughout Europe in any given year are of a type known as “religiously inspired”. According to the EuroPol EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (2013), of 219 attacks across seven countries in 2012, only six fell into this category. Many more (167) were due to separatist movements. The pattern varies each year but these figures are not unusual. Your theories about motivation in terms of religious martyrdom do not seem likely to explain very many events of this kind.

    Second, there has been no point in history when an army or other military force from a nominally Muslim country has had a presence in, or has even tried to invade Western Europe or North America. No villages in the UK or any of its near neighbours have been razed to the ground by aerial bombardment, drone attacks, etc. initiated by countries in what we call the Middle East.

    Third, in stark contrast, for most of the last 150 years the British or other Western powers have had armies in one or more of the countries of the Middle East more or less continuously. They have partitioned land, drawn borders, installed dictators, imposed laws, with none of the democratic participation of local people which they later proclaimed as a guiding principle that justified a need for further intervention. They make no complaint against regular violations of human rights in some of these states: on the contrary they continue to make business deals with the despots who run them.

    Fourth, in 1948 in response to a number of terrorist incidents, they established a state, Israel, on land then called Palestine. This resulted in the displacement of over a million people, some still in refugee camps 65 years later. Western governments stood by while that state forcibly occupied the territory of its neighbours, and while it continued to build settlements on the land so acquired, flouting international law and UN conventions more than any other single country has done.

    Fifth, more recently, purportedly acting in our interests, these same governments instituted sanctions against Iraq (run by a dictator they had previously armed), resulting in a near-trebling of the mortality rate of children under 5 (Lancet, v.355, p.1851). The 2003 invasion of that country resulted, on the best scientific estimates available, in many hundreds of thousands of deaths, the majority of them non-combatants (Lancet, v.368, p.1421). Many more have died since then.

    You are certainly right: killing people is not easy. But it’s a challenge that our own leaders seem to have risen to, and on a massive scale. Give the history just outlined, it may not be very surprising that some people feel very aggrieved about it. There are video recordings by two of the July 2005 London bombers that give this as the reason for what they did. Horrifying though this week’s event was, one of the men allegedly involved also made reference to some of the above in what he reportedly said immediately afterwards. You say our involvement in conflicts overseas “will be perceived as the cause of a terrorist attack”? Waking up to the politics, that perception and its accompanying narrative might not seem so distorted. To put it bluntly, these horrors are considerably less than the ones our own government has visited on people elsewhere. I think the model of terrorist thinking which you espouse in your item needs to be expanded or modified to take some of this background into account.

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