When we call a man a terrorist, we bestow a certain status on him. He ceases to be a common criminal, a violent narcissist, a drop-out. He becomes, instead, a man with a cause.
Bellicose young men, in all ages and nations, look for ideologies that justify their aggression. Sometimes, they latch on to an organisation that already exists – the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the IRA, al-Qaeda. Sometimes, as with Anders Behring Breivik or Seung-Hui Cho, they develop their own Weltanschauung – often in language so conceited and hackneyed that, in other circumstances, it would be laughable.
I've mentioned before that what these killers tend to have in common is not so much ideology as personality. Whether they are Islamists or animal rights extremists, loners or ETA bombers, they tend to fit a certain profile. They are overwhelmingly male and in their twenties. They are often slightly brighter than average, and tend to have some education. They have frequently had a history of petty crime. They have rarely been successful with girls.
Michael Adebolajo, the man waving his blood-stained hands in front of the phone cameras, seems to fit the profile well enough. Neighbours recall a hostile boy who once punched a girl in the face when she called to retrieve a ball, who loved shooter video games and who later became involved in drug peddling and gang violence.
At first blush, his doesn't seem an Islamic way of life. For the point about Adebolajo is not that he was a Muslim – few Muslims would recognise him as a coreligionist – but that he was an anti-social thug. Lord Macaulay, who had useful things to say about virtually every subject, observed:
The experience of many ages proves that men may be ready to fight to the death, and to persecute without pity, for a religion whose creed they do not understand, and whose precepts they habitually disobey.Indeed. And if not a religion, something else. We are dealing with people who have faulty empathy, and who have latched on to causes that tell them that the problem is not theirs, but everyone else's.
Don't build up these smalltime crooks as international terrorists. Don't nod towards their view of themselves as soldiers engaged in a war. Don't treat them as representatives of any religion. Don't, in short, do anything that will tempt the next saddo trawling the web from his mother's basement to think that an act of violence will somehow be treated by the authorities as a challenge to the state.
Treat the Woolwich abomination like a crime: an unusually nauseating crime, to be sure, but a crime rather than an ideological act. Let the police deal with it. Spare us the Churchillian rhetoric. If you absolutely must meet in Cobra, call it by its pedestrian full name: Cabinet Office Briefing Room A.
Let people see these men for the losers they are, with their underpants bombs, their belief that you can set glass-and-concrete airports on fire by driving into them, their tendency to blow themselves up in error, their childishly self-obsessed statements. Trumpet the sheer banality of their evil.