"Khalid Masood was a violent Christian [known as Adrian Elms or Adrian Ajao] long before he was a violent Muslim." Those were Baroness Sayeeda Warsi's words on the Andrew Marr show on BBC this am.
In other words he was a violent person. He may have used religion to justify violence, but so have many Christians. What lay at the root of his violent nature?
It wasn't long after the identity of Khalid Masood became known that the early years of Adrian Elms or Adrian Ajao were uncovered. The account in the Telegraph is as good as any.. Details are unclear and vary somewhat between news stories, but what is clear is that it was a deeply disturbed man who became a Muslim while in prison. He had at least two periods in prison in the early 2000's for violent assault. It was suggested by his defence barrister that one of these assaults was provoked by racism: "There were racial overtones in the argument between himself and the victim. He let that get to him - unusually, because in the past he has been able to shrug off that sort of abuse." The judge's words in sentencing him are important: "While [the racial abuse] doesn't afford any excuse for your behaviour it may afford some degree of explanation."
Racism typically penetrates to the core of our psyche over a long period. It's impact is on physical health as well as mental health, where it "creates intense and constant stress which boosts the risk of depression, anxiety and anger" and can lead to psychotic episodes. (Racism Harmful to Mental and Physical Health) In "Racism's Psychological Toll", an article in 2015 at the height of incidents that led to the Black Lives Matter campaign, looks at how it is now finally being researched and is now being categorised in terms of race-based Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The author notes how "In a 2013 Psychology Today article, Williams wrote that “much research has been conducted on the social, economic and political effects of racism, but little research recognizes the psychological effects of racism on people of color.”
There was the inevitable questions on Friday about what Masood did during his year or do in Luton. For me a different question was at the fore, relating to life four decades earlier.
Masood grew up in Tunbridge Wells, a very respectable town, and very white, even today. I know. I grew up there too. My extended family lived in villages on the Kent Sussex border where he lived. I went to a school just up the road from him. I had cousins at his school at the same time as him. There were a handful of black families in the town then, I knew children of two of them. I remember the abuse as I walked occasionally with one, a friend from church. And I remember my shock at the correspondence in the local paper when two East African Asian families arrived in town as refugees in the early 1970s.
It's very sobering to reflect on how the threads of my life have come close to Masood's and may even have crossed his. As one Muslim friend said to me on Friday, "Maybe you went to the same church?" In the circumstances that question is a fair mirror of the guilt by association that is so often clear if you happen to have prayed at the same mosque as a terrorist.
If racism was a cause of Khalid Masood's angry outbursts it's unlikely to have had its impact overnight. I want to at least ask the question, how much was the foundation of it laid in his experiences as a teenager? Of course there were likely to be other causes. Life is seldom simple. And of course, I'll say again, as the judge said, none of this excuses his outbursts of anger.
What makes this all so troubling is that on Thursday we were already hearing of reactions to the terror attacks. Hate mail received at Mosques just hours after the attack. Abuse of Muslim mums taking children to and from school. Here in Luton and around the nation. My question is this. What will the impact of that hatred and discrimination be one of two decades on? If the response to this atrocity is the cause of the cycle of vengeance turning again, then we must do all we can to stop that cycle.
And as I reflect on the proximity of my life to Masood four decades ago i am prompted to ask two questions. Is there anything I could have done differently if I'd had the benefit of a time machine? And with that in mind, what can I do now to negate hate and discrimination?