Warning: Refers briefly to extreme violence.
The killer comes across as very ordinary. He's talking like a man who has had a bad day, has shunted your car but is explaining his reasons and providing a reluctant apology. His hands are covered in blood and he is holding two blood-stained weapons, but he's not wielding them - his body language is not threatening. He is not processing what he's done because he has no time: he is explaining himself while waiting to die, naively convinced that the Metropolitan police will shoot to kill.
So Stephen and I spoke about this and once again, despite knowing better, I found myself reaching for the words of madness. On-line and throughout the media, the language of madness is everywhere. I have written before about the difficulty of avoiding this language, far greater difficulty than with other disability terms and slurs. However, just now this seems especially important.
The idea that violent people are necessarily mentally ill is such a huge problem and not just for those with mental ill health. Of course it does stigmatise people with mental illness, who are no more likely to commit violent offences than the rest of us. It leads to some of the very worse disability discrimination, effecting a person's job prospects, their ability to find housing and their relationships. But there are two further major problems:
To describe a behaviour as mad is to dismiss it as impossible to understand. It's the easy way out; these guys are lunatics, nothing they do could possibly make sense, so we won't try and work out what happened. It also means, to a slightly lesser extent, that we let the bad guys off the hook; they're mad, so they can't really help it. It removes all meaning from a death with very little meaning, from the pain of the dead man's loved ones, and the trauma of everyone who was standing on that street; it was just a nasty random accident.
The language we use about these events is likely to impact on a great number of people, especially as the two attackers were black (the man in the video has a London accent) and by this morning, it was being described as an Islamic terrorist attack (here are some tweeted responses from British Muslims). Using the correct language to express our outrage is not just about protecting innocent but unconnected people who might feel offended or find life becomes a little tougher for them. It is about how we understand what has happened, whether we respond to events constructively or throw up our hands in despair.
Here's some suggestions of words we can use when we're inclined to use slurs or medical terms that relate to mental illness:
When we mean shocking:
outrageous, incredible, astounding, horrifying, sickening, breath-taking, unimaginable, staggering, impossible.
When we mean difficult to understand:
unfathomable, incomprehensible, baffling, inconceivable, absurd, preposterous, mind-boggling, unthinkable, beyond understanding.
When we mean very bad:
heinous, hideous, evil, abominable, monstrous, odious, detestable, devastating, abysmal, hateful.
When we mean that someone is making profound mistakes in their thinking:
misguided, specious, wrong, misplaced, erroneous, perverse, faulty, illogical.
Illogical or irrational thoughts are by no means the preserve of people with mental ill health. Just earlier yesterday, Stephen's Dad had been talking about an inspirational maths teacher who would use algebra to convince the class into thinking he had proven that 1 + 1 = 3. He'd then show them how this was done, turning maths into a kind of magic. People who believe that extreme violence is morally justified are like students who saw the first proof, but weren't there, or weren't listening, when the trick was explained.
The word I've seen and heard time and again is psychotic. Psychosis is a state (a symptom of illness rather than an illness itself) where a person may become so overwhelmed by their unreal experiences - hallucinations, paranoia etc. - that folk do, very occasionally, commit violence which they can't be held responsible for. I have experienced psychosis, it is a state of abject terror, but it rarely makes one dangerous to others.
It's speculation, but the guy in the video doesn't seem psychotic. Someone who commits extreme violence during psychosis will have an extremely strange reason, if they're even cogent enough to explain; they had to slay the lizard king to stop him eating babies, they had to kill the man who had been listening in on their thoughts. This chap's reasons aren't in any way reasonable, but they don't seem grounded in a clinical delusion (Weirdly, the apparently Muslim attackers are quoted elsewhere as saying "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."). He believes that his victim is a killer of Muslims, in the much the same way that British nationalists believe that Islam is an inherently murderous religion. They're all wrong, very wrong, but their mistakes don't make them sick.
The heartless side of me is glad this man survived, because he doesn't seem unwell. He was only prepared to do what he did because he had no intention of living with it. And now he may have to.
Here is a story some of the heroism that took place in Woolwich yesterday. It's also important to talk about heroism at these times, so we remember what courage and wisdom look like.