By Polly Toynbee
23 March 2017
Well, how did we do? We knew this attack was coming and we can be pretty certain more will follow because the security forces tell us so. “Highly likely” has been the severe threat level for years.
Eight have now been arrested in raids in Birmingham and London. Our counter-terror forces have stopped a score or more attacks and 500 investigations are under way, but however many schemes are in place, who can stop lone assailants with a Hyundai and a knife?
How did we all react? Exactly as you might expect, everyone true to form. On the frontline a well-drilled police force prevented the man getting to “the heart of our democracy”, as one officer did as they are all trained to do, and took the risk for all of us. A pleasant job, a cushy number, guarding parliament, chatting with MPs, journalists and visitors – until this moment comes.
The rest of us? We all did just what you would expect, as no doubt I shall now: no change, every event confirming our pre-existing view of society.
The prime minister said the right thing, as prime ministers do: “Never giving in to terror. And never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart.” Some hope. The reaction only shows yet again how driven apart we are. Our political feuds have become a mighty cultural divide: that’s what mindless yes/no referendums do, and why they are the instruments of demagogues.
All of us responded in our tribes. The Sun called for a huge increase in armed police right across the country. “It has never seemed right before, but the world has changed.” Yes, well, how’s that going to help? The Daily Mail claims it has always stood up for privacy, but wrote: “The truth is that in this fast-changing world, it seems increasingly perverse to deny the authorities power to eavesdrop on our electronic communications for the purpose of protecting the public.” The Mail called the attacker an “Asian”, as if that identity were a belief, smearing global billions.
Donald Trump Jnr used the chance to attack Sadiq Khan in a tweet, goading: “You have to be kidding me?!: Terror attacks are part of living in big city, says London Mayor Sadiq Khan”, when all he’d said – last year – was to repeat security services constant warnings. But well, a Muslim mayor is too good an opportunity to miss. Website Guido Fawkes, home to virulent hate-filled below the line commenters, lets them turn on the BBC, of course: “The BBC as we speak are looking for a Muslim who was injured, so they can say they are the victims, not the perpetrators ... How soon will the BBC hail today’s terrorists as heroes and men of peace like Martin McGuinness?” – and much worse, including obscenities about Diane Abbott.
How they must detest the police spokesman who said: “We must recognise now that our Muslim communities will feel anxious at this time given the past behaviour of the extreme right wing and we will continue to work with all community leaders in the coming days.” Quite right, for how else were other near-attacks foiled, except through the information passed on from those close enough to potential attackers to know their thoughts?
Paul Dacre, editor in chief of the Daily Mail group, pays hate-writing columnists online, (not worth a name check), as they speak his mind: “London is a city of ghettoes behind a thin veneer of civility kept polished by a Muslim mayor whose greatest validation is his father’s old job. Son-of-a-bus-driver Sadiq … The war is between London and the rest of the country. Between the liberals and the right-minded. Between those who think it is more important to tip-toe around the cultures of those who choose to join us, rather than defend our own culture ... Because we are not united. We are wrenched asunder. The patriots of the rest of England versus the liberals in this city … the liberals casually use the term ‘far right’ for anyone who has national pride.”
And last week the Mail won Newspaper of the Year, in a year during which it has promulgated racist, anti-migrant bilge on its front page day after day to secure the referendum result. But it is hard not to agree with that Mail columnist: we are not united. We are more disunited than ever, and the Mail is heavily to blame. Sadly, the optimistic Jo Cox may be wrong – more divides us than unites us. Compare the Mail’s coverage of the conviction of Jo Cox’s neo-Nazi killer on page 30, with what we can expect if this turns out to be a religious maniac.
As for the public, I doubt they feel “democracy under threat”. Those of us around at the time of the many IRA attacks know how to assess risk. Run through the probabilities, check the chances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and remember they are infinitesimal. The Queen was only half a mile away, shudders the Sun. True, along with how many millions of others too, and she’s rather better guarded than most.
With my seven-year-old daughter I felt I was very close in time and place to one IRA bomb – a little earlier and it could have been us, but when I calculated the number of other passersby who might say the same, the odds grew very long indeed.
In 2015 1,732 were killed on the roads in the UK, 22,137 seriously injured. Step outside your front door – or, actually, stay at home – and we can all calculate the everyday risks we take just by being alive – we don’t let that cripple us with terror. Wise parents, trying not to rear timid children, work out the reasonable risks they should take.
Outrage at the deliberate infliction of such suffering is political: how dare they? What monstrous methods! That’s the difference in pain and misery a child feels between being deliberately hit by another child, or accidentally bumped into in the playground. The hurt we feel at political attacks is emotional, visceral indignation.
The police warn there will be more. It may be a feature of global life for as far ahead as we can imagine. Treat it like the weather, regardless of whichever fanatical cult takes to random murdering to try to make themselves heard.