Police forensics tents and officers are seen in Woolwich on May 22. Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images
Police forensics tents and officers are seen in Woolwich on May 22. Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

Combine a meat-cleaver murder by Islamist radicals in the streets of London with the U.K. tabloid press and Twitter, and you get something as bizarre as it was gruesome.

At about 2:20 p.m. on May 22, two men driving in the suburban south London area of Woolwich crashed their car into a young man. He was wearing a T-shirt from the charity Help for Heroes, which assists former soldiers. The two assailants jumped out and attacked the man with a knife and cleaver. One of them, his hands red with blood, then demanded that a passer-by film a statement from him. As he spoke, a woman pulling a shopping trolley wandered past.

“Beheaded..On a British Street” says the front-page headline of the Daily Mirror. It's unclear whether the man’s head was cut off.

A local rapper called Boya Dee , said he stumbled onto the scene while going out “to buy some fruit and veg.” He began sending messages on Twitter: “Ohhhhh myyyy God!!! I just see a man with his head chopped off right in front of my eyes!” When the police arrived, Boya Dee sent another message. “The first guy goes for the female fed with the machete," he said, referring to the police woman. "And she not even ramping she took man out like robocop never seen nutn like it.” By ramping, he meant messing around.

A woman called Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, aged 48, was on a passing No. 53 bus. She got off to see if she could do anything to help the victim. She said in interviews afterwards that one of the killers told her to leave the body alone and said in response to her questions that he had killed the man because he was a soldier. “He killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan. They have nothing to do there,” she recalled him saying.

Witnesses described the men frantically chopping at the body as they chanted "Allahu akbar" as they killed him. Yet, according to Loyau-Kennett, the man she spoke to “was not high, he was not on drugs, he was not an alcoholic or drunk." Instead, she said, "he was in full control of his decisions and ready to do everything he wanted to do.”

The murder in Woolwich appears to slot into a pattern of recent years, in which the killers -- like the Boston bombers and Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people, including three French soldiers and three Jewish children last year in France -- have been mostly young, of immigrant backgrounds, radicalized by Internet propaganda and self-directing.

Despite the gory details, media coverage of the Woolwich killing was surprisingly calm and rational. The newspapers reported on numerous denunciations of the attacks and provided news and analysis, but mostly avoided commentary. The Times and the Guardian, for example, chose to run nothing on their opinion pages. The Sun, the U.K.'s sensationalist tabloid, made the banal comment that “we must defy the extremists and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our armed forces.”

The Sun also published an article by Mark Almond, a historian at Oxford University. “Fanatics want to promote tension between Muslim migrants and the rest of us," Almond wrote. "The terrorists must be hoping that indignant ordinary Brits will pick on local Muslims. Yesterday’s atrocity was insanity. The rest of us must not react according to the killers’ logic.”

The U.K. has had larger terrorist attacks in the past, including the London subway and bus bombings of July 7, 2005, when 52 people were killed. These appear to have had relatively little effect on relations between the country's religious communities. After yesterday’s murder, a protest by about 250 supporters of an extremist group called the English Defence League, who clashed with police, has also had no wider resonance so far.

Yet across Europe, intolerance is growing. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, Greece and France, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is out in the open and finds expression in mainstream political parties. In the U.K., that isn't the case, although it does emerge in more coded ways. Such sentiment has become inextricably linked with the debate over whether to leave the European Union, for example. The Woolwich killing can help only the isolationist side in that argument.

(Tim Judah, the Europe correspondent for the World View blog, is a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this article: Tim Judah at timjudah@btinternet.com

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net