As I awoke on Monday morning to yet more terrible news, this time the terrorist attack in North London, my immediate thought was that I couldn't remember a more depressing time in our country. Westminster, Manchester, London Bridge, Grenfell Tower and now another tragedy to add to the seemingly relentless stream of disasters where innocent people are dying and being seriously injured in major incidents.
As I scrolled through my newsfeed, I couldn't help feel as though there were some double standards in the tone of press coverage and the language being used when compared to other terrorist attacks. Many headlines were framing the incident in far less graphic terms than is usual after a terrorist attack. For example, terms like 'collision','crash' and 'van hits pedestrians' were were being favoured, phrases which are morally neutral and carry no connotations of deliberate violence, let alone terrorism. In some cases headlines were so ambiguous that it even made it sound like it could have been an accident.
As I watched a reporter interviewing eye-witnesses on the TV, I was perplexed as to why the reporter asked many times over if they thought the driver had meant to hit pedestrians, despite the witnesses repeatedly saying the attacker had said he wanted to 'kill all Muslims'.
The most obvious reason for this strange diversion from the usual media response to a terrorist attack would be that in this case, unlike previous attacks, the perpetrator was white and the victims were Muslim. This wasn't 'Islamic' terrorism, and so not a 'proper' terrorist attack. While I am by no means Theresa May fan, I have to commend her and Sadiq Khan for immediately responding and denouncing the incident as terrorism. It begs the question though, that if the PM and London Mayor could do this, why was it that many reports were still putting the word 'potential' before 'terrorist attack', and persisting to keep the quotation marks till very late in the day?
There is yet more evidence of double standards, not just from the media but the police too. While it is of course admirable that the police arrived on the scene in good time, it is nevertheless a salient point that the suspected terrorist, Darren Osborne, was taken to hospital and underwent a mental health assessment. Personally, I have long thought that all those arrested in connection with terrorist activities should have their mental health assessed, but I do wonder just how many Muslims in police custody on terror-related charges have had this same privilege. It just reinforces the impression that if a white person kills and maims, he must be 'mentally vulnerable' or a 'lone wolf'. However, when it's a Muslim there is seldom any consideration given to their possible history of mental illness, which I am convinced must also play a part in their radicalisation. Instead, connections to a wider 'cultural' problem are immediately made, entire communities are demonised and there is no room for nuanced, intelligent debate.
Victim blaming by the usual suspects
Later that morning, I tuned into a live call-in show on the radio which was addressing the incident. But instead of the usual public responses of sympathy and solidarity, I was appalled to hear that the debate had turned to the hate-preacher Abu Hamza who used to address the congregation several years ago at Finsbury Park mosque (which is a different mosque to the one outside which innocent bystanders were mown down, although in the same area). An angry caller was suggesting that there may have been some justification for the attack due to that mosque's connection to the now-deported extremist. I later read that The Sun dubbed the attack as a suspected 'revenge' attack, and the Daily Fail wasted no time in planting an entirely disingenuous association between Abu Hamza and the mosque by running a headline to that effect. They later changed the headline, after it came under strong criticism, not least for being entirely incorrect.
It worried me how quickly the narrative had been so skillfully hijacked by the tabloid press and its supporters on social media, who were trying to link the innocent victims to extremism. Not only are these insinuations insensitive and unfair, but they also reinforce the perception of Muslim identity in the public imagination as being so tightly bound to terrorism, that they are not even allowed the dignity of just being innocent victims.
Terrorism has two faces
Theresa May has unambiguously linked the incident to 'extremism', 'hatred' and 'evil' and Sadiq Khan has said that 'terrorism is terrorism' no matter what inspires it. Many are now wondering if those people who incite far-right-wing extremist 'hatred and evil', such as that which presumably inspired this attack, will be held to account in the same way as those responsible for promoting hate of the 'Islamist' variety have been. Tommy Robinson and those sympathetic to his ideology have been very active on social media, implying that the attack was justifiable revenge, with some even tweeting that it was 'long overdue' or that Muslims 'been warned' that they would be targeted. In my opinion it is hypocrisy of the highest order that hate-preachers like Tommy Robinson and his kind are allowed to peddle their extremist ideology publicly and without restraint whilst there is an ever-increasing crackdown on Muslims who do so from the opposite end of the fanatical spectrum.
JK Rowling, in a twitter spat with Katie Hopkins, suggested that the latter's offensive vitriol might have played a part in radicalising the Finsbury Park attacker. Katie Hopkins has been widely criticised for seeming to call for genocide against Muslims in her tweet referencing a 'final solution', and other inflammatory remarks.
Others have suggested that Douglas Murray could have influenced the attacker's beliefs. His rants in print and on air urging the British public only two weeks ago that we need to have 'less Islam' could be taken quite literally to those inclined to pay attention to his dangerous rhetoric. Britain First, the EDL and other far-right groups should all be in the spotlight now; just as extremist Islamic groups are not tolerated for disseminating hateful ideologies, so should we be just as watchful against these groups which are radicalising white men and contributing to an atmosphere where Muslims are 'fair game'.
It will be interesting to see if the authorities will start to take seriously the threat to all our security that is coming from such individuals, groups and press, with their constant drip-feed of bigotry and Islamophobic spleen, and I will be keenly watching to see how this story plays out in the coming days. I, like many others, am not satisfied with the 'jobless, lone wolf, mentally vulnerable, father-of-four' line. Rather I would like to see attention given to the suspect's ideological inspirations and any other forces that may have contributed to his radicalisation. If we truly want to have security, harmony and mutual respect amongst communities, extremism in all its forms must be called out for what is. That is the only way to resist those who wish to divide us.