Grief and questions over senseless killings

Innocent victim: James Furlong, head of History at Holt Community School, was “kind and gentle”. © EPA

Is lack of mental health care the key problem? A midsummer day in a Reading park was ripped apart by a knifeman. Three victims are dead. Today, a nation in shock must ask why it happened.

Saturday was the longest day of the year.

Like many other parks around the country, Forbury Gardens in Reading was dotted with groups peacefully enjoying the evening sunshine.

But then out of nowhere at 7pm, horror struck.

According to eyewitnesses, a man, in his mid-20s and dressed in a black t-shirt, screamed something unintelligible in a foreign language, then pulled out a knife and began running anti-clockwise around a circle of 10 people sat on the grass, stabbing them in the back or neck.

Terror had returned to Britain. The attack would leave three people dead and at least three more seriously injured.

One of the dead is James Furlong, pictured above, described by many pupils and colleagues as an “incredible” and “supportive” History teacher.

Khairi Saadallah, a 25-year-old Libyan, has been arrested on suspicion of murder.

Police said that the stabbings were being investigated as terrorism, but that they weren’t pursuing other suspects. Saadallah was a lone wolf.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, said, “If there are lessons that we need to learn [...], we will not hesitate to take action.”

What are the questions that the nation needs to ask?

Firstly, why was he at liberty to cause harm? Saadallah is the second person of Libyan ancestry to be involved in a high-profile UK terror incident. The Manchester bombing of 2017 was carried out by a man who had recently returned from fighting in the Libyan civil war.

What is more, Saadallah was already known to the UK security services. Just last year, he was brought to the attention of MI5 as someone who might engage in “terror-related activities”. He was considered a high-risk offender, who had been in prison several times for other less serious crimes, including assault.

Secondly, why was someone with obvious mental health issues receiving no professional help? The National Association of Probation Officers said Saadallah was understood to have “severe mental health issues” but was not “in the system”.

Interviewed this morning, his cousin says he suffered from a condition that meant he heard voices and had psychotic episodes. He was also a heavy cannabis user. “He always said it was like someone cast a spell on him,” she says. “He thought people were following him.”

Another friend in Reading also confirms today, “He was the nicest guy I’ve ever met, but he definitely had something wrong with his head.”

Psychological experts are expecting a flood of new mental health patients once lockdown lifts.

The most vulnerable members of society, they say, have had an especially difficult time staying afloat during the lockdown and the pandemic.

Social workers have reported that, since food banks closed, many former asylum seekers who were previously employed in precarious, low-paid jobs in the service industry have no income at all and have been going “insane with hunger”.

So, rather than focusing on terrorism in this case, is lack of social care the key problem?

Dangerous mind

Yes. Saadallah is no “terrorist”. A Muslim by upbringing, who claimed to have recently converted to Christianity, he is better described as hopelessly confused. Vulnerable, lonely, and a heavy cannabis user, he was surely a prime case for social and mental care. The trouble is that, after years of cuts, there is no safety net. To call this terrorism is to get the wrong end of the stick – a classic case of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

No. Nothing can excuse the evil of Saturday’s attack. There are plenty of people suffering from mental health conditions who do not commit acts of carnage. The security services have again let an obvious suspect slip, only to wreak havoc on the public. Western governments need to realise that, while they have been transfixed by the Covid-19 crisis, terrorism has not gone away.

You Decide

  1. Does the word terrorism affect how you relate to a tragic story like this?
  2. Do you think it is reasonable to expect the police to be able to stop such random acts?

Activities

  1. Think about the word “terrorist”. Write your own definition. Now, look it up in a dictionary and compare the official definition.
  2. “If I am mentally ill, I am not responsible for my actions.” Write one page, reflecting on the implications of this statement.

Some People Say...

“With guns you can kill terrorists, with education you can kill terrorism.”

Malala Yousafzai, activist and Nobel Prize winner

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Although terrorism gets huge media attention, it is, in fact, a tiny risk to most people. For example, the best available data shows that close to 56 million people died in 2017. Of these, just over 26,000 of them died from terrorism. That is to say only every 2,000th death (0.05%) was from terrorism. Road accidents kill more people in Western Europe every day than terrorism kills in an average year.
What do we not know?
Whether terrorism is getting worse. During the 1970s, Western Europe was home to the most terrorist deaths globally: in many years, 70% to 80% of recorded deaths were from terrorism. This has changed dramatically since then. In 2017, only 0.3% of terrorism deaths occurred in the region. Between 2000 and 2017 – over almost two decades – there were just under 1,000 deaths in Western Europe from terrorism.

Word Watch

Lone wolf
In the context of terror attacks, this means someone who commits an act of violence without help from others. Though they can be inspired by wider movements, lone wolves act independently of these. They are largely seen as the most difficult terrorists for security forces to stop.
Manchester bombing
A suicide attack by Manchester-born Salman Abedi at an Ariana Grande concert in 2017, which killed 22 people and injured hundreds. It was the most devastating act of terror on British soil since 2005.
Libyan civil war
A conflict that has been raging since 2014. Following dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s defeat by rebels (backed by France and the UK), Libya has been an unstable and disunited country.
MI5
Military Intelligence, Section 5, also known as the Security Service. An intelligence agency that protects the people of the UK from threats on their own soil. It is the equivalent of the FBI in the USA.
Probation
Probation officers are trained social workers who help offenders, protect the public, and reduce the incidence of reoffending.
Precarious
Not securely held; uncertain.
Service industry
A business that does work for a customer, and occasionally provides goods, but is not involved in manufacturing. For example, hotels, accounting, plumbing, computer services, restaurants, and tourism.

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