The brutal killing of a young man yesterday afternoon in Woolwich, South London, was made all the more shocking by the apparent lucidity of one of the attackers, who was filmed launching into a 'justification' of the act whilst still brandishing a meat cleaver and covered in the blood of his victim.
Nothing whatsoever can excuse this murderous act. But the immediate attempts to appropriate the incident - whether as evidence of the 'evil' hatred of Muslims in general towards the West, as yet more evidence of how we should be grateful to our 'heroes' for their sacrifice in fending off this existential threat, or as part of a concerted terrorist plot requiring an immediate security clampdown - are both unwarranted and dangerous.
Thankfully, this kind of brutal episode is rarely seen on British streets (although acts of apparently random extreme violence are less uncommon than we might imagine). But for British troops who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, violence and suffering has been an unavoidable part of their lives, whether as victims of insurgent attacks, or as perpetrators of brutality towards the people whose countries they have been sent to occupy by military force.
The involvement of British troops in the torture and death of Iraqi civilian Baha Mousa, or in the mass slaughter in Fallujah, or the systematic brutality dished out to the people of Afghanistan over the course of an occupation now in its 12th year, demonstrates that the hands of our political classes are no less besmirched with blood than the Woolwich killers. This obviously criminal act cannot be a green light for Britain to intensify its criminal foreign policy any further. It’s time to break from this cycle of violence, end the occupation of Afghanistan, and bring the troops home.
Needless to say, this is hardly the lesson the far-right Islamophobes of the English Defence League want us to draw. They immediately latched on to the incident by attempting to stoke hatred and fear of all Muslims, despite the obvious revulsion with which Muslims up and down the country greeted news of the attack. To suggest that the killers were representative of all Muslims is akin to suggesting that racist Norweigan mass-murderer Anders Breivik is typical of all Christians or all white people. Palpable nonsense, but the kind of dangerous rhetoric that has already led to reported attacks on mosques.
We need to reject extreme reactionary politics, whether Islamist or Islamophobe, isolate the fanatics whatever their ethnic backgrounds, bring criminals to justice, and defy those who - like the Woolwich killers - would see us further ratchet up the violence, fear and hatred.
Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.