The power of the catalytic image: Woolwich, Borovo Selo, and the dangers of collective guilt

On the night of 1 May 1991, four Croatian police officers drove into the village of Borovo Selo, near Vukovar in eastern Slavonia, apparently to exchange the Yugoslav flag for a flag of the Republic of Croatia above a barricade that had been set up earlier that day by a recently-formed Serb militia in the village. Two of the four were wounded and captured when the militia fired on them during the raid. The next day, sixty fellow officers from Vinkovci entered Borovo Selo by bus in order to rescue the two men and drove into a pre-planned ambush at the entrance to the village. In the attack that followed, twelve of the Croatian officers were killed and their bodies mutilated. Horrific photographs of the recovered bodies were shown on Croatian television.

The Borovo Selo massacre amplified Croats’ fears of the rebellion against the Croatian authorities that had been growing in strength since the summer of 1990, when groups of Serbs had set up barricades across roads near Knin in another part of the country, Krajina. Armed incidents had already taken place: that Easter, a firefight in the Plitvice national park between Croatian police and rebels commanded by the Knin police chief, Milan Martic, had left one person dead on each side. The spread of violence into eastern Slavonia and the building of the Borovo Selo barricade Selo had come after the future Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, had fired rockets into Borovo Selo in what Laura Silber and Allan Little describe as ‘an unprovoked act of aggression’ against the local Serbs (The Death of Yugoslavia, p. 141).

Fear of where the rebellion and the countermeasures against it might lead had been growing since the Krajina barricades and the Plitvice gun battle. Yet even then, the visceral horror of the images from Borovo Selo seemed to change what it was possible to publicly say in Croatia. Journalists referring to the Serbs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘Chetniks’ – the nickname of the Serb royalist army during the Second World War, which had also massacred non-Serbs – became routine. In the field that I research, the entertainment industry, it was after Borovo Selo that the Croatian broadcaster stopped showing Serb musicians, even those such as the pop singer Zdravko Colic who had been acceptable as late as April 1991. After Borovo Selo, automatic suspicion of Serbs as national enemies could much more easily become ingrained common sense.

The video recorded on a smartphone in Woolwich a few minutes after the killing of Lee Rigby, a drummer in the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, approaches the horror of the pictures from Borovo Selo. The hands of the man claiming responsibility for the attack are still covered in blood. Both force the viewer to imagine the brutality of the killing; both depict the murder of victims who were killed because they served their state. Both are far beyond what a reader could normally expect to see on the front page of a newspaper in a time of peace.

Although many British newspapers used a still image from the recording on their front pages the day after the murder, The Guardian‘s use of the image was perhaps the most shocking. Filling the front page with the image, as The Guardian often does, the newspaper confronted readers with the photograph and a quotation from the alleged killer’s speech: ‘You people will never be safe.’ When taken up by a national newspaper, even more so by one that considers its editorial identity anti-racist, the words come perilously close to suggesting that a people – however this is going to be defined – is under immediate, planned attack, the same argument that has been put forward by the English Defence League since its formation in 2009.

On the evening of the killing, a remark apparently originating with a Metropolitan Police source that the attackers had been ‘of Muslim appearance’ was repeated by the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson (a comment for which he subsequently apologised). The Home Secretary, Theresa May, referred to the killing as ‘an attack on everybody in the United Kingdom’. The combination of words, images and commentary circulating in the British media in the aftermath of Woolwich, laid over the public ‘common sense’ about terrorist threats in the UK that has been built up throughout the War on Terror and especially since the 7/7 attacks in London, risked turning what was known about the immediate events – the attackers had claimed to have carried out the killing ‘because Muslims are dying every day’ – into a conclusion of collective guilt: Muslims are to blame.

Talking about guilt and aggression in collective terms creates an atmosphere in which the obstacles to someone’s decision to use violence come down. It can suggest that violence in revenge won’t be punished; that it will be condoned; that it will be justified; even, sometimes, that it counts as self-defence. Among the Guardian staff invited by the reader’s editor to comment on whether the front page had been appropriate, one staff member spoke about their fear that the Guardian’s use of the alleged killer’s quote would bring about precisely these results:

As someone with very religious Muslim family members in this country I watch press coverage of events like these closely, and often with a fair amount of fear. My mum, though she is one of the ‘you people’ in Thursday’s headline, lives in fear that she will become one of the ‘you people’ of the EDL’s chants.

In the five days after Woolwich, 71 hate crimes against Muslims were reported to UK police forces, including the attempted firebombing of a mosque in Grimsby (covered, like Hull, by the area of Humberside Police). A hotline operated by Faith Matters and the Tell MAMA Project has received reports of 201 incidents, ‘up from a daily average of four to six’. The EDL mobilised an unclear number of members – possibly 1,000, possibly more – to march through Westminster on Monday, easily outnumbering the anti-fascist counter-protestors who must now regroup before another far-right march from Woolwich to Lewisham on Saturday.

Many things set the killing in Woolwich apart from the massacre in Borovo Selo. In the background to each event are very different histories of discrimination, settlement, and relative power relations within and around the states where they took place. Their short-term backgrounds are very different, too, with a number and severity of incidents in the locality of Borovo Selo before the massacre that had not, thankfully, occurred in Woolwich. The Borovo Selo massacre took place within an ethnopolitical conflict where different authorities were claiming state sovereignty over territory; the far-right appropriation of Woolwich is an expression of anti-immigrant racism.

What connects them is a brutal killing, a horrific image, and what becomes more acceptable to say in public after the killing and the image become known.

In an academic context I would use the idea of the ‘collectivisation’ of threat or even guilt to explain some of the reactions it was possible to hear as news about the killing in Woolwich spread, and the increase in talk about Serb ‘terrorists’ and ‘Chetniks’ after the murders in Borovo Selo. It’s a thought process where members of a collective group, in this case a majority, recognise a threat as directed against the whole majority and coming from the whole of the minority that the killers belonged to rather than the immediate group that carried out the killing – whether the members of the militia who planned the ambush in Borovo Selo or however many people will be found to have arranged the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And it is dangerous.

I started thinking through these parallels a day or two ago in conversation with bloggers @Puffles2010 and Sam Ambreen, who have both written about how the media’s sensationalisation of the Woolwich killing have increased the fear they feel as non-white people in Britain. Both refer to the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian who was shot dead by police in 2005 who assumed, based on the colour of his skin, that he was one of the suspects for the 21/7 bombing:

[Nick] Robinson’s failure exposes a wider prejudice: the idea that you can judge someone’s religion by the colour of their skin. Once you get into that territory, you get into scenarios that cost Jean Charles de Menezes his life following 7/7. (@Puffles2010)

Jean Charles de Menezes was one of them. If we had any hopes of restitution post 9/11 (not from guilt but from between a rock and a hard place) the events of 7/7 dashed any chance of rebuilding the fearful paranoid Britain we found ourselves in. Menezes was not Muslim or South Asian, or an Arab. He just shared a similar tone of skin. What about his appearance made him look Muslim? Whatever it was, he paid with his life. (Sam Ambreen)

Sam also draws on my initial thoughts in part of a follow-up post she wrote after the EDL march on Monday. These writers, the Guardian staffer quoted by the readers’ editor, and many others, all have immediate reason to be afraid of being seen as part of a collective threat, and to vest those fears not just in the far right but also in the police. Ash Sarkar, in an update reblogged by Laurie Penny, wrote of her shock at seeing personal friends express hatred on Facebook when they heard of the attack:

I’ve seen people call for hanging, torture, extra-judicial killings, locking up/deporting all Muslims and attacks on mosques. These aren’t strangers on Twitter, but people I’ve grown up with: gone to school with, babysat for, and (in one case) kissed.

Hearing accounts like these (which deserve to be heard in full, rather than explained in a voice like mine – which, since I’m white and not a Muslim, can’t personally express the same degree of fear) points to a responsibility on the part of those of us who are being told we are collectively under attack not to contribute to collectivising guilt or threat any further if we reject the frame. The louder and safer the voice, the greater the responsibility.

Challenging hatred and the far right in the atmosphere that has become public with shocking speed since Woolwich seems a harder task, but also much more urgent, than it did before the Woolwich murder. Reading accounts of anti-fascist organising in Britain in the past, such as the Battle of Cable Street against the British Union of Fascists in 1936 or the resistance to the National Front in Lewisham in 1977, one wonders whether today’s movements would be able to organise similar numbers of people for action inherently more dangerous than the A-to-B marches that have characterised mainstream political protest in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, and just as urgently, we need to find ways to resist – and avoid replicating – the politics of collective guilt and threat that make direct violence more possible.