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The Terrorist Attack That Failed to Terrify

By Ben Judah

September 15, 2017

Friday morning in London a terrorist failed. There were flames but no deadly blast at the Parsons Green Station on the London Underground subway system in this, the fourth terrorist attack in London and the fifth in Britain this year. Not only did the as-yet-unidentified terrorist fail because he bungled his bomb-making, he failed because he failed to terrify.

Yes, there were the jumbled tweets about a fire and stampedes. Then, the report of a “major incident” in which more than a score of people had been hospitalized. Eventually even, a claim of responsibility by the Islamic State. But very quickly, it all felt routine.

Here we go again: the politicians talking of London’s strength and the indomitable spirit of the Blitz — forever part of “our finest hour” when Britons were unbowed even as the Luftwaffe’s bombs rained at night. This was followed, yet again, by a brief Twitter cameo from Donald Trump, before he turned to attacking the American sports network ESPN.

Walking around Britain’s third-busiest train station, Liverpool Street, I found that the politicians had it all wrong. If the terrorist attack at Parsons Green had resulted in more than injuries, perhaps there would have been both fear here and its antidote, resilience. But I found no Blitz spirit at the station, which served as a shelter for thousands of East Enders during the air raids of World War II.

Not a single person I spoke to was standing strong against terrorism. They didn’t need to. Because they weren’t scared.

I talked to construction workers, teachers, railway workers, students, immigrants, retirees and the heavily tattooed. Without exception, these Londoners just shrugged.

“That’s London,” several said. “This is the world we live in,” I heard. “It’s not serious,” I kept being told. They talked about it the way the British talk about the rain.

But terrorism is not the same as inclement weather. Even when the immediate perpetrator is unknown, such attacks carried out by groups like the Islamic State ultimately serve a larger military strategy typically deployed by coordinated ideological cells to throw the enemy off balance. The goal? To turn the enemy’s media system against itself. The Israeli historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari says that terrorists “don’t think like army generals, they think like theatre producers.”

This is how a crude, amateur attack like the one last June on London Bridge, in which eight people were killed by assailants wielding a van and knives, can be magnified into something seemingly as terrifying as the rain of Nazi bombs that killed hundreds night after night. The terrorists exploit the fact that every tweet, every clip, every image, every political message turns a tiny event into a terrifying spectacle.

This is by design. The novelty of social media and rolling news help to make relatively insignificant terrorist attacks in Britain and France seem more terrifying than they were. Today in London, however, the spectacle had gone stale.

Commuters grumbled about how the news media was creating panic; most laughed when I asked about the Blitz spirit. I heard repeatedly that I should ignore the social media hype and that talk radio was whipping things up to grab audience.

It wasn’t that those I had spoke to had zero concern about the series of terrorist attacks that has killed some 30 people in Britain this year, but their attitude conveyed a sense that the threat was more like random urban violence than anything akin to the Nazis’ bombing campaign.

Some of those I met explained why they weren’t scared by comparing the Parsons Green attack to London’s 100 murders a year, and thousands of incidents involving knives or guns. These were all things they regarded as serious and unnerving. But not terrifying.

What I found unnerving was the constant repetition that this was “just London.” Because, to me, this wave of terrorism in Western Europe is not some regrettable but inevitable wrinkle in urban life, but very often the result of specific security failures. A former chief of the Metropolitan Police, Peter Kirkham, said recently that the force “is in crisis” because of cuts in government spending, and London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has warned that, for this reason, it is “increasingly difficult” to ensure Londoners’ safety.

The worst attacks are generally planned, coordinated, military-inspired operations by terrorist organizations that claim to represent Islam. These, and not something about London, are what inspire the copycats. The spike in attacks in recent years is a direct result of the Islamic State’s establishment of a military force in Syria and Iraq that has, by some estimates, been comparable in size to the British Army, and of its creation of terrorist cells in the West.

For London, it may be a good thing to maintain “keep calm and carry on,” as another Churchillian cliché goes. But it is also a mistake to wave away this “petty” terror as part and parcel of modern lives.

This is no Blitz, but it is still a security problem that Britain is failing to cope with — not just a nuisance of modern urban life. There are ideologues and radicals, from Raqqa to London, who are grooming the next generation of foot soldiers. Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, is tracking more than 3,000 terrorist sympathizers in about 500 separate investigations. If the government insists on fighting terrorism on the cheap, then not all them will be “losers,” to use Mr. Trump’s word.

Ben Judah is the author, most recently, of “This Is London.”