I like a good story as much as anyone, and I can’t claim to always be obsessive in my pursuit of the truth, but coverage of the so-called ‘White Widow’ Samantha Lewthwaite on Friday and over the weekend has put the British media to shame. Unsubstantiated claims that she was linked to the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya last week not only cheapen discussion of this bleak event, but benefit the Jihadists themselves.
Lewthwaite first rose to attention after the 7 July London bombings of 2005. The widow of bomber Germaine Lindsay, she was initially critical of her husband’s actions, but then fled the country. Ever since she has been a bogeyman for media and Interpol alike. She was a specter evading capture, committing unknown evils and subverting our ideas of what a radical is and how British people behave.
Following the Kenyan shootings, Interpol issued a wanted persons notice for Lewthwaite’s arrest. No matter that said warrant related to terror charges dating from 2011, the UK press immediately leapt on the coincidence. The Mail’s reasoning was typical: “[the warrant] does not mention the weekend attack on the Westgate shopping mall,” its news piece on Lewthwaite read, “But the timing of the warrant at the height of investigations into the slaughter of shoppers is seen as hugely significant.” This clarification is likely to have made little difference in the eyes of the public. Readers only require the most tenuous of associations to identify a new monster. Just ask a paediatrician.
So what? The media have chosen a good story over the truth. It’s hardly dog bites man, and in many situations I’d be right behind them. In this case, however, there is a difference. Global terrorism relies on heroes and martyrs. What encourages young men and women to blow themselves up for an idea is the stories they hear about warriors who went before them. My fear is that Lewthwaite will gain an awful kind of celebrity. For most Britons, she will be a focus for Cathartic hatred, a jihadist Jimmy Saville. For some, however, she will become a figure to rally around. Other dispossessed and troubled people might see something appealing in her dedication to a cause, and the notoriety that comes with it.
In their attempt to fuel anti-fundamentalist outrage, journalists have secured a PR coup for the sick individuals that planned and carried out these attacks. As ever, the most damage from this terrorist stunt wasn’t caused by bullets. It was caused by words, and the power of fear and awe.