The legend of the Lone Wolf in recent history can probably be traced back to Lee Harvey Oswald, though he was more commonly referred to as the Lone Gunman, a label that became so embedded in popular culture that a team of conspiracy theory geeks in ‘The X-Files’ named themselves after it. A Lone Wolf or Gunman has always been a difficult concept for the general public to wrestle with, as though the thought of an attack at the heart of democracy surely requires a complex network of vested interests. After all, John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was part of a plot involving a team of individuals intending to revive the fading Confederate cause by killing the President, the Vice President and the Secretary of State. Only Wilkes Booth succeeded in his aim and his is the sole name history records from the aborted operation.
Even further back than Lincoln’s assassination, Spencer Perceval – the solitary British PM to have been assassinated – was murdered by a Lone Gunman named John Bellingham in 1812. No doubt at the time newspapers cast doubts over Bellingham’s singular role in the assassination and speculated as to a wider plot being afoot in such unstable times. Just eight years later, the Cato Street Conspiracy was a genuine team effort to murder PM Lord Liverpool and his entire Cabinet, hatched by a group already regarded as a revolutionary organisation; it was foiled courtesy of a police informant, though reinforced the common belief that such audacious schemes couldn’t be attributed to one individual.
The speculative industry that has grown around events on 22 November 1963 largely refuses to countenance the idea that one man could execute a plot to take out the President, even if there has never been concrete evidence of CIA, FBI, KGB, Cuban or Mafia involvement in Oswald’s actions that day. It often feels reminiscent of the theory that an oik from the sticks was incapable of penning the greatest theatrical canon in the English language, as though the genius of Shakespeare or the nerve of Oswald somehow highlights both the mediocrity of the masses and their absence of nihilistic ambition. There had to have been more than one man because we couldn’t do what he did without a team behind us.
The gradual realisation that last week’s 24-hour Public Enemy Number One, Adrian Russell Elms (AKA Khalid Masood), appears to have acted alone and not as part of a group hell-bent on attacking the Mother of All Parliaments has again raised these same issues. But the amateurish and ill-thought-out nature of his attempt strikes me as the classic clueless desperation of a disturbed individual with nothing to live for but the prospect of trashy infamy. Professional terrorists would surely have managed more than this useless member of society, whose random victims were indistinguishable from those yer average knife-wielding maniac might have slaughtered down the road in Hackney, something that probably wouldn’t have been labelled a ‘terror incident’.
When the Irish National Liberation Army murdered MP Airey Neave via a car-bomb as he drove out of the underground car-park at the Palace of Westminster in 1979, it was clearly a meticulously-planned team operation that achieved its extremely precise and specific aim. Thanks to the bullets of an armed policeman, we will probably never know what the aim of Khalid Masood was, though it’s possible he himself didn’t really know either.
When no evidence of group involvement can be uncovered, the search for an answer then hones in on whatever it was that may have influenced the motivation behind something that claimed lives within yards of the very place the Gunpowder Plotters failed to obliterate. The current blame game lays responsibility on the doorstep of the internet, though literature largely escaped censure when Lone Gunman Mark Chapman famously murdered John Lennon after identifying with Holden Caulfield, antihero of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’.
Nevertheless, the medium of the moment will always fall under suspicion when so many struggle with the fact that some individuals have the capacity to do – or to attempt to do – what most would shy away from. Just as it’s thankfully incomprehensible to the majority that one could become a serial killer bereft of all empathy or compassion where one’s fellow human beings are concerned, it’s equally hard to comprehend how somebody could callously mow down pedestrians in a car and then stab a policeman to death en route to some muddled destination; there has to be some great answer at the root of the individual’s actions, and it may as well be the internet.
What so many cannot accept is the alien idea that some individuals have gradually grown so far apart from the consensus of a society rooted in fair play, mutual respect and shared democratic aims that they can commit a crime so opposed to the foundations that society is built upon; that such a crime can easily only require the planning and participation of one person merely adds to the conundrum. When MP Jo Cox was murdered on the streets of her constituency last summer, her murderer Thomas Mair was subject to the usual speculation as to his membership of far-right groups from both press and police before it emerged he was acting alone. For some reason, it’s easier to envisage something so horrible emanating from an organisation, whether the IRA or ISIS, than the Lone Wolf, as if it takes a team of individuals egging each other on to even invent a scenario of that nature.
The fact is, however, that an organised conspiracy to destroy western civilisation is effectively in the hands (and mind) of the individual rather than a structured criminal underworld recognisable from a Bond movie; but the governments running western civilisation will continue to propagate the SPECTRE theory as long as it gives them more power to act as a cyber lollipop man intercepting your online traffic. Remember – it’s for your own good.
© The Editor