"We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings nor stamp out every danger to our open society."
- President Barack Obama, May 23, 2013
These words, spoken during the U.S. president's major speech Thursday on counterterrorism, encapsulate the feeling of many British citizens about the brutal attack that occurred on a London street earlier this week. There is little doubt that the hacking to death with a meat cleaver of a 25-year-old man was the embodiment of evil. But how else are we to characterize the actions of Michael Adegolajo and Michael Adebowale, who, rather than fleeing the scene, relished the real-time filming of their violence and waited for police to arrive?
Their behaviour, and subsequent political justification, suggests that this was no ordinary knife crime. Moreover, the victim – a member of the U.K. armed forces – appears to have been singled out because he was wearing a T-shirt from a British military charity, Help for Heroes. Perhaps, then, we can label this a hate crime – a targeted attack to intimidate an identifiable group? But then again, hours after the incident, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron convened a meeting of his special cabinet committee, known as COBRA, thereby suggesting that the events in London required a response beyond what ordinary law enforcement could provide, and leaving us with the label of "terrorist".
Indeed, BBC journalist Mark Easton argues that the slaughter of Drummer Rigby seems to have been motivated by the same objective of those who carried out terrorist acts in the aftermath of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: the desire to force those of us who live in safety "to experience the brutality and blood of the battlefield."
The presence of Western troops in these regions, and the violence and destruction unleashed by war, has contributed to the radicalization of many young men, both at home and abroad. However, if this was an act of terrorism, it also carried distinctive features. In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Obama claimed that while the threat posed by today's terrorists is real, it is not on the scale of the September 11 attacks. Instead, he suggested, it resembles what Western societies faced during the 1980s and 90s. There is some truth in that analogy. It's worth remembering, for example, that members of the U.K. armed forces were also targeted by the IRA, and that there were calls in that period (similar to those made over the past few days) that soldiers should take care when wearing their uniforms in public. Yet the terrorism of the IRA, which menaced British society for three decades, differed markedly from what we saw earlier this week: two men brandishing a long knife in full and broad daylight, unconcerned by the prospect of capture.
The frightening truth emerging from the London killing and Boston bombings – a truth which has actually been evident for some time – is that acts of terror can take many forms and may not be linked to any significant "overseas" networks. In short, terrorism can also be, in some senses, an individual act of violence. Moreover, it is unrealistic to expect security services – despite the criticisms being levelled at both the FBI and MI5 – to be able to detect all such threats. The counterterrorist 'game' has always been about probability assessments. But the nature of the attacks in London and Boston suggests that these judgments will frequently be wrong, and that there is very little we can do about it. In fact, we should do all we can to maintain a sense of proportion. Given finite resources, and given the values that underpin our open societies, we need to become more comfortable with this very uncomfortable reality.
Jennifer M. Welsh is Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College. This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and their international-affairs hub OpenCanada