The first thing to remark about yesterday’s attack on and near the Palace of Westminster – though it may appear callous to say so, in view of the four innocent lives lost and the unknown number of serious casualties, all of whom of course deserve our deep sympathy – is that it failed. That’s of course assuming it was a ‘terrorist’ attack, targeting the Houses of Parliament, and for the usual terrorist motives. For the moment – just a few hours afterwards – that looks the most likely scenario. The body of the assailant, shown on TV in early transmissions, but later with his face pixelated, was brown, and had a thick black beard without a moustache. Is it a sign of prejudice on my part to infer from this that he was probably a Muslim; and in view of his actions before he was killed, to go on from there to suspect that he might have been a jihadist? No-one will be more relieved than I if that turns out to be false.
The failure of his mission was twofold. Firstly, he never got into the Parliament building, which redounds to the credit of London’s police and the British intelligence services. We can conclude from this that we are safe as a nation, without requiring the kind of drastic measures that, for example, UKIP and Trump favour, like Muslim immigration restrictions and travel bans. There’s no way of preventing attacks by lone individuals (although, to be fair, MI5 still needs to determine whether or not he was ‘alone’, or had collaborators and sympathisers), driving ordinary cars, and wielding kitchen knives. They, of course, can come from any sector of society. The murderer of Jo Cox was not a jihadist.
Secondly (and this is where my expertise as a historian comes in): the literal and correct definition of ‘terrorism’ (dictionary.com) is ‘the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes’. The word itself, terrorisme, was first used during France’s ‘Reign of Terror’ to describe government intimidation, of whole populations. Thus, it’s wrong to use the word – as it often is loosely used – to describe any act of political violence: for example the assassination of a political figure simply to get rid of her or him. In this sense, yesterday’s attack abjectly failed too; just as the London bombings of July 2005 (‘7/7’) did. Londoners have not been intimidated or coerced. They have a proud history of this, dating back to the London ‘Blitz’ of 1940. And London’s immigrants seem to have acquired the same sang-froid. They will be back to work today, and Parliament will sit again.
So overall this was good news – except of course for the poor victims and their families; and a lesson to those who would wish to curtail our – or our prospective immigrants’ – freedoms further in the vain search for absolute security; which however would likely be counter-productive. It is, after all, what the Islamicists want. Learn from our example, Donald.