As these things go, it was not too bad. One idiot in a car murdered 3 people, with 7 more in a critical condition who may die, at least 40 with terrible injuries, and many more people traumatized. Crowds of tourists ran away from the place of slaughter at Westminster Bridge.
Earth has not anything to show more foul.
From the terrorists’ point of view, they got lots of publicity for minimal outlay, the economics of a Spam email.
The first casualty of terrorism is innocence. Despite bombings, London retains a trusting perspective, a relic of a former age, when it relied on an unarmed police force, on the assumption that nothing else was required. Seen from a generational point of view, England became more peaceful than the Continent in the late Middle Ages, a change usually attributed to Common Law, on the basis that a well-functioning legal system relieves victims of the motivation to wreak their own revenge. Citizens gave up their personal weapons a century ago, and took up politeness, already a national habit.
Years ago a neighbour, woken at night by the sounds of a thief breaking into my car in the street below, leaned out of her bedroom window and asked him: “Can I help you?” in an accusing tone of voice. “And do you know what?” she continued, affronted, “he glared at me before he ran away”.
The event in Westminster, while unpredicted, became predictable as it unfolded. Pedestrians were knocked down and crushed, and then a policeman stabbed to death, until the assailant was shot dead. A script has been laid out for aspiring Jihadis: use a car or lorry as a weapon to kill the public, and then die in a supposed blaze of glory. It is a simple, destructive meme, easily propagated, all too readily believed.
BBC television coverage was informative, repetitive, often using snatches of videotape out of time context in a sloppy way; and too keen to interview other journalists, and eventually prone to hyperbole: “an attack on the heart of our democracy”. Of course Parliament is a symbol, but a policeman stabbed anywhere in London is an affront to a peaceful society. Being held out of harm’s way in a Parliamentary office is very stressful, but no ordeal compared to those shattered on Westminster Bridge.
As the event unfolded the kabuki-like circumspection of BBC reporting began to grate on my nerves, whilst I also respect the need for caution until facts are in. However, in the modern world the facts come in fast and furious. I got the first news on a tweet, something like: “I have just seen a man shot outside Parliament” and then went to the BBC website to be told only that, as breaking news, there had been an incident related to Parliament, and nothing else. The first account I saw came from Radoslaw Sikorsky, with a video of the mayhem and injuries on the bridge, and a clear account of what he had witnessed, and a recording of the taxi driver contacting the emergency services, clearly and calmly. As a consequence, one part of the story was already clear, widely available, and blindingly obvious. TV news was just playing catch up. For a long while the news reported that there had been two incidents, one on the bridge and the other outside Parliament, even though the incidents were separated by about 60 yards and at the most a few minutes. Circumspect, but a bit silly.
Reporters talked primly about things they had seen “on social media” but when that included live recordings of events they eventually included them in their broadcasts. Citizens were the victims and also the first attenders and the first reporters. Still, I respect official reporters for keeping their distance from the dead and dying, and not jumping to conclusions. The audience can wait: their needs are not paramount.
“I will not speculate” said the Police spokesman some hours later. Fine, we understand that if there is a trial you do not want to provide any surviving assailant with a defence. However, one day I hope they will be able to say: “Our preliminary hypothesis, based on modus operandi and appearance, is that this is yet another Jihadi, of which there are potentially so many”.
For a while there was a swirl of rumour reported on TV that the dark-skinned assailant had been accompanied by a white man carrying two knives. A Member of Parliament whose staff had seen the incident from their office window said that they had seen no such thing, but the “other assailant” theory ran for a while. It may be a Piagetian equivalence: if bad things happen to lots of people there must have been lots of bad men. No, an idiot with a large vehicle can kill many people, and still be a single idiot. One man can shoot John Fitzgerald Kennedy dead, even though he is much more important than Jason David Tippit, whom he also shot dead.
It was impossible not to notice, in the midst of the mayhem, how some witnesses were more able to describe what had happened than others. It was not only the profound emotions, but the task of explaining to those who did not know the Parliamentary buildings and the terrain, and where they were going, and at what time. Explaining requires a good theory of mind: what is obvious to you will not be so to your listener. This is well known in disaster research. Some witnesses just name who they were with, others state the relationship for the benefit of the listener.
It is highly irritating to hear journalists say of fleeing pedestrians that they were in a state of “panic”. Running away from a terrorist stabbing people is exactly what any sensible person should do. In true panic pedestrians would be running towards the assailant, or waiting to be told what to do, or checking their baggage. Being absolutely calm and staying within stabbing distance is not a wise policy. People were frightened, very frightened and that was a very sensible reaction.
It is only my lay impression, but Carriage Gate (the entrance where the assailant stabbed and killed the policeman) will need to be reviewed. It seems that every time I drive past, the gates are always open. I doubt that unarmed police could cope with both a vehicle ramming in and a group of armed men pushing in at the same time. Also, Westminster tube station had no way of knowing what was happening on their doorstep until an MP told them, on no authority other than her good sense, to close the station to new arrivals. That needs a review.
This morning the news revealed that 8 people have been arrested, many in Birmingham, where a few wards of the city are disproportionate suppliers of Jihadis. Community leaders made the usual comments about the need not to alienate those local communities. What is the subtext to those cautionary statements? The implied threat is that alienating the community from which assailants are drawn will make them increase the supply.
Was it a failure not to have spotted this guy, described as “British born”, by which of course they mean “born in Britain, but not British as you would be used to think of it”? He had been on the radar of the security services, but was judged peripheral. In my view, no real failure. There are too many Muslim men talking Jihad to be able to spot the one that turns from preparation to the completed act. There is little doubt as to the group one should be monitoring. This is a time for Bayes, not wishful balderdash. Concentrate on the source of supply and you reduce the false positives, though you can never be sure of identifying the signal in a cacophony of hostile noise.
What can one say about the “militant and proselytizing faith of Islam”? I will leave that to a statesman who made his reputation defending freedom.
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property, either as a child, a wife, or a concubine, must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.
Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.
Winston Churchill. The River War: An Historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan (1899), Volume II pp. 248–250
Strange to see his statue apparently witnessing the event from a few yards away.
Driving into London last night everything seemed as before. Restaurants were in full flow, though with fewer people outside because it was a cold evening. It was personally reported to me that many Government employees regarded “lockdown” as an imported absurdity, and let themselves out of the back doors of their departments so as to carry on with their engagements, walking along Whitehall and the Strand in order to do so. Other offices declared “lockdown” because it seemed fashionable, but staff went out from side entrances to get coffees anyway, despite it taking them closer to the scene of the event. The London Eye (large Ferris wheel) was not only stopped, but people were left in it. Sure, don’t let new people on, but why not let people off? It would be good to let citizens make their own risk assessments, and not ensure that these tragic and terrible events become an excuse for widespread paralysis of city life. Returning by car after dinner took a bit longer, because the roads near Parliament were still closed, but everything was peaceful.
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!