Was it really terrorism last week?

By David Aaronovitch, July 11, 2008

There is no proof that the bulldozer killer was motivated by politics

Older readers may recall a TV ad two decades or so ago for The Guardian newspaper. It showed a skinhead- type steaming, full throttle, towards the back of an unsuspecting pedestrian in an inner city street. The idea was that you were supposed to think that here was an assault or a street robbery about to take place. Then, at the end of the sequence, from another angle, you see the shaven-headed protagonist push the supposed victim out of the way of some falling masonry. The moral, of course, was that you shouldn’t jump to conclusions, even if your experience leads you in certain directions.

Husam Dwiat, of course, wasn’t trying to save anyone a few days ago, when he took his bulldozer on a death trip through Jerusalem. His intentions were lethal, both towards others — in cars and buses — and towards himself. He presumably understood, somewhere, that there was only one way in which it would all end. Quite possibly that was the entire point.

The problem is that his actions — whatever their actual motivations — were only likely to be interpreted in one way, as a form of political violence directed by a Palestinian against Israel. So, almost immediately, Dwiat’s rampage was described by an Israeli government spokesman as “an act of terrorism”, to be filed alongside suicide bombings and random rocket attacks. Hamas, for its part, quickly appropriated the events as representing “a natural response to Israeli aggression”. To maintain the pattern of everyone fitting the Dwiat attack into their existing mindsets, an Israeli Guardianista — understandably worried by official sabre-rattling about curbs on Israeli Arabs — reiterated his mantra that “just because there can be no excuses, does not for a minute mean there can be no explanation”. In other words, Dwiat was a Palestinian driven crazy by the occupation of Gaza and other such injustices.

But what is the evidence for any of this? Or, to put it another way, isn’t it possible for people in Israel and the Palestinian territories to go crazy for their own reasons? I ask because it appears that Dwiat had no contacts with any terrorist organisation, was not particularly political, and came from a family and a background that did not in any way support random violence.

I have no idea what to make of the slightly self-serving story of his doomed love affair with a Russian Jewish woman, but this, too, is an example of using scant evidence to create a narrative. The truth is that we actually have no idea why Dwiat did what he did, but we are determined to suggest — not least to ourselves — that somehow we know.

Let us transfer the action now to London in the spring. In a swish part of Chelsea, a young barrister picks up a shotgun and begins to shoot at his neighbours’ houses. Leslie Hummel described how the man, Mark Saunders, “was standing at the window which he hadn’t bothered to open. He was just firing through a hole in it into the garden. I went to the ground level and discovered he had been shooting at my daughter’s bedroom window.” He took what was described as a pot-shot from his flat at a Jane Winkworth, who was in her back garden. He fired in through the windows of another woman, peppering her pictures with shot. Then, sometime later, he was himself shot and killed by police.

Saunders was not a Muslim, so terrorism wasn’t suspected. And think about that sentence for a moment. Nor did he fit the lone-geek profile of college rampages or the disgruntled employee of so-called “postal” killings. The London Evening Standard, for a moment, in a headline reading Police kill Iraq veteran, permitted us to play with the “damaged war-hero as victim of uncaring society” scenario, before we discovered that Saunders’s Territorial Army stint had ended a year before the Iraq invasion took place.

This left two other speculations. One, that Saunders was a drunk, and that was why he did it, and the other, seemingly vindicated by his last note, reading “I love my wife”, that this was a domestic of some kind. 

How convenient all this is. It was the booze, it was the war, it was the wife, it was the occupation, it was the hatred of Jews; it was something they — murderous suicidal people — have that I don’t. But I am struck by the fact that, in the days before his death, Saunders had been seen outside his flat, in tears, rocking back and forth. In other words, he was almost certainly suffering a nervous breakdown. He was deeply depressed.

So why might that not also be true of Husam Dwiat? As his neighbour, Rateb Shehadeh, said, “I do not know why he did it. He died and his secret died with him.” Why do you think you know better? And does it do you any good to stash this man’s (and his victim’s) end in the box marked “died in the endless war”?

Last updated: 10:23am, July 10 2008