Let us turn our gaze from America, and thoughts of what spectres may taunt the mama’s boy in the Oval Office, to the demon-haunted world of Brexit Britain. Less than a year ago, a sitting MP in this country was murdered in the street. By a decidedly pro-Brexit killer. I guess that’s why we all seem to have moved on rather quickly from her murder, in terms of our news cycle and the forces that dictate it – if people spent too much time dealing with the fact that Brexit is the choice of neo-Nazi murderers, it might interfere with Theresa May’s plan to turn the whole of the UK into a super-sized Jersey.
I talk a lot about haunting on this blog, because I believe that there is a sense in which magic might be understood as deliberate, directed haunting. Jo Cox’s murder haunts every discussion of Brexit Britain, because if you voted Leave, then you chose to vote with her killer; and if you voted Remain, then you have to deal with the fact that a sizable chunk of the people you’re sharing a bus with chose to do so. But Jo Cox doesn’t haunt our discourse with official sanction, because she raises that difficult question. That spectre of division. There are ghosts more suited to our leaders’ purposes than her.
Which brings us to the murder of Lee Rigby.
Ah yes, the inevitable picture. There he sits, frozen in time, his medal on his chest, his bearskin by his side, a symbol of the British Empire – another ghost with full approval from on high – in all its pomp and circumstance. It’s actually very hard to find an image of Lee Rigby online that isn’t this picture, and it’s easy to see why. It’s perfect.
It is worth looking for other pictures of Rigby though. Not for any conspiratological ‘Look! They’re not the same man!’ bollocks – of which more later, sadly – but because they remind you of something the picture hides. In other pictures, Rigby looks more slight, less sure of himself: he seems to possess that peculiar vulnerability you find in some types of military man. He has that same vulnerability in the surveillance camera footage of him on his way to his fatal appointment. Seeing those pictures, rather than the official icon, makes his death more real, more tragic. It reminds us that we have grown so used to seeing Rigby as a symbol that we forget he was also a human.
It’s one thing to bemoan the inevitable loss of granularity in turning a human being into an effigy. It’s quite another thing, however, to suggest that human being never existed at all. Enter Christopher Spivey.
Spivey, recently found guilty of harrassing Rigby’s family, is the kind of conspiracy theorist who gives the more sensibly paranoid among us a bad name. I know because, in researching this piece, I took a look at his website and boy, is it shit. This a man whose idea of humour is to call one of his pieces on Jo Cox’s murderer ‘Vagina vs Thomas Mair’ because – do you see – Regina, as in ‘the Queen’, sounds like vagina, as in, a fanny! Ho ho ho. Incidentally, in the Thomas Mair piece Spivey also claims that Jo Cox didn’t exist, so I guess denying peoples’ existence is kind of his thing. Solipsism, I suppose, takes many forms.
The thing is – the Rigby case does become more interesting the closer you look at it, to paraphrase Flaubert. For example, did you know that Michael Adebolajo, one of Rigby’s killers, was harassed by MI5 in the months leading up to the attack – a period which followed his subjection to sexual trauma at the hands of the Kenyan police? That’s what Adebolajo’s friend, Abu Nusaybah, claimed in an interview with Newsnight. After which he was arrested by police, under ‘counter-terrorism’ powers. Which doesn’t sound all that surprising in this case – except that he was the only person in the entire Rigby case who was arrested on those kinds of charges. All the other suspects were nabbed under yer bog-standard criminal legislation, but they had to raid the specious grab-bag of national security powers to justify nicking Nusaybah. That’s…interesting.
Interestingly, Adebolajo is also in the news again: the pearl-clutching portion of the press is making great play of the fact that he’s suing the five Belmarsh prison officers he accuses of attacking him.
The tabloid fury is inevitable because Adebolajo is the villain of the Rigby psychodrama. That’s the role he was chosen to play. But think about the man’s time in Kenya. Arrested and sexually assaulted by police? As a survivor myself, I can see how being pushed around by people who reminded Adebolajo of the people who raped him might just have left him predisposed to act out in a way that led to what the red tops euphemistically refer to as ‘a scuffle’. PTSD is like that: your fight-or-flight reflex is on a hair-trigger. And I can imagine that being beaten up by people who reminded me of my attacker might traumatise me at least as much as losing two of my teeth.
None of that excuses murder, of course. But empathy, surely, is not illegal yet. It is possible both to deplore someone’s actions and still feel pity for their suffering. Nuance, yeah?
But nuance is not what these two stories are intended to provoke. They’re not about genuinely thinking about one of the most horrific ritual murders in British history (beheading is a form of ritual murder). They’re about summoning up the ghosts that case evokes: the murdered soldier, magnificent in his Imperial uniform; the wild-eyed Islamic killer, ranting with blood on his hands. They’re about weaving those ghosts in with other useful spectres: the swivel-eyed conspiracist, the vexatious litigant, the bien-pensant defenders of human rights. They’re about printing that picture again.
They’re about reactivating the official sacrificial victim of English resentment and outrage. A deliberate, directed haunting of the discourse.