WHO hasn’t walked over Westminster Bridge at some time in their life? That span across the River Thames is often so crowded that all you can do is shuffle along, caught in the crowd – and, yesterday, trapped as a madman used his hire car as a lethal weapon.
Watching the BBC news last night, and scanning the newspapers this morning, stirs different reactions. Horror and anger, for sure, at the cowardice of a man who once again used innocent people as a target for whatever Islamist mania addled his brain.
Admiration for the work of the emergency services, and for the efforts of the Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood who helped paramedics to try to save the life of the stabbed policeman, who sadly died; and at the efficiency of the police as they dealt with this outbreak of terror at the heart of Westminster.
It was possible to be impressed, too, by the resourcefulness of the journalists trapped inside Westminster and broadcasting live using their mobile phones. We are used to this by now, but it was still striking to see the likes of Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor, reporting on her mobile while she remained uncertain of what was happening outside.
That’s how we receive news nowadays, the tragedies and the terrors, in mobile snatches and Twitter bursts – and in a crisis, Twitter turns from a frivolous medium into a direct and immediate way to pass on news.
Another feeling, never a good feeling, was that it was ‘our turn’ for something like this to happen. It was a year ago this week that the Islamic state atrocity in Brussels airport killed 32 people, following earlier attacks in Paris, with their massed victims.
It never seems right to compare atrocities, and while far more people died in Brussels and Paris, people in London yesterday went about their day, about their work or their holiday travels, and never returned. That’s why it seems right that we should remember the humanity rather than the inhumanity; we should see the human story of loss, and yet also see the humanity in the efforts to save lives, to put things right, to make society whole again, or at least as whole as possible.
It is natural that we should be angry, that we should seek revenge of some sort, yet it is important to remain calm, and to refrain in our understandable fury from passing round the panic megaphone.
That’s what the terrorists want; they kill innocent people as a way of spreading panic and undermining society. They want our society to fall apart, and we should not grant them that wish.
This point has been made many times before, and is made this morning from different ends of the political spectrum: Simon Jenkins puts the argument powerfully in the Guardian, while the Daily Telegraph cautions against over-reaction, as jihadists want to close down ordinary life, and “we must deny then the disproportionate reaction they seek”.
Instant panic reactions are less welcome, with the Sun saying we need to see more armed police everywhere, and the Daily Mail that greater surveillance of our lives must now occur.
And wouldn’t you know it but there is a Trump mouthing off in all this, too. Not the alarming president but his mini-me son, Donald Trump Jnr.
After the Westminster attack left five dead and 40 people injured, Trump Jnr criticised London mayor Sadiq Khan in a snide tweet. “You have to be kidding me?!” Trump Jnr tweeted, quoting the headline “Terror attacks are part of living in big city, says London Mayor Sadiq Khan.”
The reference was to a story six months ago in the Independent in which Khan made the hardly surprising point that a terrorist attack would come at some point. It is not clear if Trump Jnr knew this was an old story and not the mayor’s reaction to the latest tragedy. Whatever the case, he jumped in with both feet – like father, like so; and I don’t like either of them one bit.
Mayor Khan’s actual response was sorrowful but measured, and strong too – “Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism,” he said.
After the Paris attacks in which so many people died, a slogan found popularity. It was based on ‘Je suis Charlie’, words seen everywhere after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine.
The follow-up was less dramatic, less neat – but powerful in its own way, too. It was this: “Je suis en terrasse.” This translated roughly as “I am sitting at a terrace” and the English equivalent might be: “I am down the pub.” It was about the reaffirmation of ordinary life, a refusal to be cowed and the triumph of the ordinary pleasure of having a drink in a cafe. It remains the perfect riposte to terrorists, even if for some this morning thoughts of ordinary life will be a long way off.