The humanity that overcomes rage

31 May 2013

The killers of Lee Rigby needed him to be nameless, says Paul Vallely

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 Romford.

"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 the killing.

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 you loads."

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 Bloomsbury Publishing.

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