His killers almost certainly did not know his name. He was a
soldier, they surmised, by his age and bearing. Perhaps they had
seen him leave Woolwich Barracks. Perhaps it was his Help for
Heroes sweatshirt. That was enough. They were not looking for a
man, so much as a symbol.
One of the men who are now being detained as suspects was filmed
by a passer-by waving his blood-stained hand towards the camera. He
spoke of how British soldiers were killing innocent Muslims "in our
land", and went on to assert that "you people" will never be safe.
The man concerned was born in Lambeth and brought up in
"Our land" here is a construct. It is the phrase by which
certain jihadist extremists refer to the psychological collective
community of Muslims, wherever they actually live. In contrast, the
home of the dead soldier, Drummer Lee Rigby, is a few miles away
from where I live. It has been interesting to set the various
national reactions against that of the people of the Langley
estate, where the 25-year-old soldier had been a pupil at the Queen
Elizabeth School, and played football for Middleton Boys, in the
part of Greater Manchester between Oldham and Bury.
When a shocking incident such as this occurs, the words pour
out, as we all try to make sense of a world that suddenly does not
compute as it did yesterday. There is a temptation for us to locate
ourselves in the story in some peripheral way. "I can't believe
this happened on my doorstep," said one resident of Woolwich, in an
attempt to fathom the relationship between the everyday normality
and the momentousness of what its people had just learned.
So we seek refuge in symbols, too. Drummer Rigby's fellow
soldiers responded by talking of their pride in the uniform they
shared with him. The public, anxious to answer evil with a gesture
of goodness, spontaneously sent £600,000 in donations to Help for
Heroes in a single day. There were appeals for homes to fly the
Union flag in memory of him. More sinisterly, attacks on mosques
rose from the routine four to eight a day to 150 in the days after
On the Langley estate, however, the grief was more personal and
direct. Prayers were offered in All Saints' and Martyrs', where
Drummer Rigby's mother married several years ago, and the family
addressed the press in Bury at the local headquarters of his
regiment. They spoke of how their heart skipped a beat when they
heard the news on television, and of their increasingly desperate
attempts through the evening to contact him, until the fateful news
was confirmed in the middle of the night.
They read out the last text message that the soldier had sent to
his mother: "Goodnight mam. Hope you had a fantastic day today
because you are the most fantastic one in a million mum that anyone
could ever wish for. Thank you for supporting me all these years.
You're not just my mum, you're my best friend. Good night, I love
The men arrested for Lee Rigby's murder have their story, too.
The friends of one told of a pleasant and polite schoolboy, who
turned to militant Islam after rebelling against his devoutly
Christian family. His manners survived his depraved religiosity
sufficiently that he bizarrely apologised to onlookers for the fact
that women had had to witness a savage attack on a man he did not
even know. The victim, of course, needed to be nameless. Had the
killers somehow been able to read that text message, their humanity
might have overcome their self-righteous rage.
Paul Vallely is writing a biography of Pope Francis for