What Does A Hate Crime Look Like?


“The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky — seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

I used to remember the concluding sentence of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness as I passed the Thames on my way to visit relatives in Woolwich, where a young soldier was murdered earlier this year. Conrad's novel opens with a scene set just down the river in Gravesend, where a small group of seamen exchange stories as they wait for the tide to turn. As they wait, the novel's protagonist relates a story which draws a thread from Gravesend to the Congo, where he had captained a ship into to the dark heart of imperialism and the ivory trade in Africa.

Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, the young men currently on trial for the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby near the Woolwich barracks in London, traced a similar thread between the barracks and the dark heart of the “war on terror” in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

The network of retaliation against retaliation, blowback against blowback, links landscapes across the globe. While drone warfare depersonalises both the victims and the combatants — making it more tempting for those seeking “justice” in the form of retribution to assign collective responsibility on the basis on “their” governments or “their” religion — the attack in Woolwich was designed to render violence as personal as possible. As the blood of Lee Rigby dripped from the hands of his killers, they announced their motive, recorded on the mobile phones of passers-by: “I apologise that women had to witness this today. But in our land our women have to see the same.”

During height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would watch the young ADFA cadets jog around the lake in Canberra. Some of them were soon likely to find themselves immersed in combat in what the young men in London described as “our land”. Now Australian troops have returned home in time for Christmas, but our role in the violence of imperialism continues, this time via drone attacks. Earlier this year, visiting Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar highlighted the connection between intelligence gathered at Pine Gap and the death-by-drone of his clients' families in Waziristan. The ADFA cadets still jog around the lake, even as they have disappeared from the visible front-line.

Those who butchered Leigh Rigby must have had similar thoughts about the soldiers of the barracks in Woolwich. But they assigned responsibility not only to the soldiers, but to the women who witnessed the bloodshed from a passing bus, to the children whose school was put into lockdown, to all those who failed to overturn their government. As their lawyers have stressed, Rigby was the only intended target for assassination, but as Abedelago's apology acknowledged, the trauma caused to witnesses was regarded as intentional, even if regrettable.

Muslims are told on a regular basis that the violation of their civil liberties in Britain and the United States and Australia is the price they must pay for failing to halt the violence committed in the name of their religion. Never mind that Muslims have provided information that has prevented numerous planned attacks in the years since the 2001 World Trade Centre attacks.

Of course, such racist attacks long predate 2001. The murder of Lee Rigby reminded me of another murder on the streets of South London – the infamous 1993 killing of a young black man, Stephen Lawrence, by white racists. After many years of struggle by Lawrence's family and supporters, his death is now acknowledged as a hate crime. The Lee Rigby case made me consider whether we should also regard it as an act of terrorism. Certainly, it had the effect of terrorising Blacks and Asians living in the area, and it had a clear political intent derived from the ideology of the British National Party, who had headquarters in nearby Welling.

Should we not regard racist attacks on Indigenous Australians, on international students, on Muslims and Muslim-looking people, as acts of terrorism? Or at least, as occupying the same moral space as terrorism? Are they not as momentous, as reprehensible, and as politically driven as any act of terrorism? And yet the word “terrorism” triggers a shudder that “hate crime” does not evoke.

“An eye for an eye” is widely regarded as a mandate for endless bloodshed, but it was originally an attempt to limit retribution to the loss suffered in the original crime. Of course, the question of who struck first is highly disputed, but there can be little doubt that the United States and its allies have taken much more than an eye for an eye. As the brave women who confronted the attacker in London said, if Muslims try to extract retribution for the blood shed in Muslim-majority countries, they – we – are going to lose, at least in terms of the body-count.

In Yemen, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in Somalia, the drones continue to raise the body-count, with little immediate risk to America and its allies. Drone-strikes are marketed as the targeted assassination of terrorists, with only the occasional much-regretted civilian causality. But reading about Pakistani families too terrorised by drone attacks to send their children to school, about last week's attack in Yemen which killed 17 members of a wedding party, I am reminded of Conrad's ivory-trader, Kurtz, scrawling the words “Exterminate all the brutes!” in his report from the Congo. And then, his dying words: “The horror! The horror!”

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.