A witness to the brutal hacking death of a British soldier, Lee Rigby, a few hundred yards from his barracks in London, had the presence of mind to record the explanatory statement of one of the perpetrators, Michael Adebolajo, on his phone immediately after the crime. What Adebolajo said—his hand bloody from the attack and still holding the meat cleaver with which he carried it out—was revealing, as were his manner and body language. Together, they showed him to be the product of the utterly charmless, aggressive, and crude street culture of the less favored parts of London. The intonation of his speech was pure South London, as was the resentful tone of thwarted entitlement and its consequent self-righteousness. His every gesture was pure South London; the predatory lope with which he crossed the road after speaking into the camera was pure South London.
Adebolajo was born in London of Nigerian parents who were devout Christians. He did not learn his manners from them, therefore, but from the society around him. At one point in his life, his parents moved away from London in an attempt to separate him from bad—which is to say, criminal—influences. Adebolajo had joined a gang that stole phones from pedestrians.
It is not true that the society in which he lived offered him no opportunity for personal betterment. Adebolajo was for a time a student at Greenwich University, graduation from which, whatever the real value of the education it offered him, would have improved his chances in the job market, especially in the public sector. But it was at the university that he encountered radical Islam, that ideology that simultaneously succors people with an existential grudge against the world and flatters their inflated and inflamed self-importance. It also successfully squares the adolescent circle: the need both to conform to a peer group and to rebel against society.
In his statement, Adebolajo apologized that women “had to see this.” I doubt that feminists will protest too much at Adebolajo’s condescending view that women should be spared sights of a man being hacked to death: why should women, but not men, be spared it? (As it happens, women on the scene behaved with conspicuous gallantry, and ironically, it was eventually a policewoman who shot him, not fatally.) The turn of phrase, “had to see,” was telling, considering that Adebolajo spoke English perfectly. His wording could not be the result of a faulty command of the language. By saying that women “had to see this,” he distanced himself from the obvious fact that they saw it because he did it, and that he did it because he decided to do it. He made it sound as if what they saw were a natural disaster, rather than a voluntary act that he performed.
He went on to say, in self-justification, that “our women” have to see these things every day, and that “you people” will never be safe while the government pursues its present policies. “Our women” and “you people”: these expressions are both revealing and chilling. By “our” he meant all Muslims, though he was neither born a Muslim nor had ever lived in a Muslim country, and probably believed that no Muslim had ever so much as laid a finger on another. By “you” he meant the inhabitants of the country in which he had grown up and spent his life. If ever there was an adolescent identity crisis turned pathological, this was it: Adebolajo felt that he was more morally responsible to abstract millions than to the people by whom he was actually surrounded. Alienation could go no further. And needless to say, it was accompanied by a grandiosity that would have been absurd but for its ultimate effect.
The story of the second suspect, six years younger than Adebolajo, was also instructive, though in a slightly different way. Michael Adebowale was also the son of Christian Nigerian immigrants. At 16, he was smoking crack in a crack house with two friends. A white psychopath and drug addict named Lee James, aged 32, entered, looking for drugs and probably planning to steal them from others. In a state of drug-induced psychosis, James accused Adebowale and his friends of being members of al-Qaida. He shouted, “You fucking Somalis, you want to ruin my country, you want to blow up my country, you want to sell drugs in my country!” He stabbed Adebowale in the hand and shoulder, stabbed one of his friends in the neck so violently that he fractured one of his vertebrae, and killed a third, Faridon Alizada, son of a refugee from Afghanistan who had come to Britain for safety. On recovering from his injuries, Adebowale abandoned the criminal youth gang of which he and his two friends were members, and converted to Islam.
James had a long history of criminal violence, the last such offense being an assault of someone with a claw hammer. In any sensible jurisdiction that took such acts seriously, he would almost certainly have been in prison for so long that he would not have had the opportunity to continue to take crack, kill Alizada, and wound Adebowale. It is impossible to know, of course, what the chain of events would have been if James had been properly incapacitated in prison, but they might well have been different, at least for Adebowale.
What these cases show is that it is not Islam that makes young converts violent; it is the violence within them that causes them to convert to Islam. The religion, in its most bloodthirsty form, supplies all their psychological needs and channels their anger into a supposedly higher purpose. It gives them moral license to act upon their rage; for, like many in our society, they do not realize that anger is not self-justifying, that one is not necessarily right because one is angry, and that in any case even justified anger does not entail a license to act violently. The hacking to death of Lee Rigby on a street in Woolwich tells us as much about the society that we have created, or allowed to develop, as it does about radical Islam preached by fat, middle-aged clerics.