There is no imagining the fear and horror experienced by Drummer Lee Rigby, and there is no imagining the pain of his family and friends after he was brutally murdered in the name of politics and religion. As a nation we should mourn him, we should stand with those who have lost him and we are doing the right thing prosecuting the callous murderers who tried to behead him in a public street. Christians who value human life as a reflection of the Divine cannot help but be horrified that any human being should endure such treatment or have their life ended against their will, and in cases like this our love of mercy should not cause us to abandon the needs of both justice and safety for other potential victims.
There has been some question of whether this was in fact a terror attack. It was. Violence and killing were used with the expressed aim of making people afraid to oppose a particular ideology. There has been some question as to whether this attack was religiously or politically motivated. It is irrelevant. Any killing like this, whether motivated by thuggery or faith, is sin. Abomination. And those who childishly try to use the Woolwich attack as a typical example of Islam at work are either stupid or maliciously and intentionally divisive, as intent on spreading hate as those responsible for the attack.
It is all too easy to give in to those malicious voices because of the nature of the attack. A human being was attacked and killed not on the field of combat (where, for some reason, we are more comfortable with barbarity) but ‘at home’, in his own country. Even those who find taking a life that God has created acceptable in war must find the idea of killing a soldier as he goes peacefully about his non-military business shocking.
The question we must ask ourselves now (that we must always ask ourselves when condemning the actions of others, as Jesus taught us to) is whether we, too, are similarly guilty. I think we may be.
Not, of course, of the animalistic barbarity we saw in Woolwich. But of killing combatants in similar situations: in their homes, in their cars, going about their non-military business. The difference is that we do not do it in person. We have more sophisticated methods. But the consequences for those targeted, and for their families, are exactly the same. Control of the UK’s unmanned drones recently moved to Britain. Until recently, they were controlled from the USA, unmanned aircraft with the ability to fire missiles remotely at targets identified by our secret security agencies or military intelligence, operating overseas.
Britain and our allies have been killing enemy combatants, members of an enemy military who are at home, not fighting, for several years now. We have killed men in front of their families. There are claims that we have killed their families too, either by mistake or expediency.
The fact that they are our enemies, that their motivations are different from our own, even the possibility that they are ontologically on the ‘wrong’ side, does not make them less human, less created in God’s image. It does not make their families feel their loss any less keenly. It does not make killing them ‘at home’ any less shocking than when it happens here. And as the drones continue to fly over areas where they have killed before, as if extremists were openly prowling the streets of Woolwich with knives today, shock has been followed by perpetual terror.
None of this makes the Woolwich attack morally acceptable. But as Christians in a democracy that does similar things in our name, do we have the courage or even the interest to recognise that we too are in need of repentance and deserving of judgement?