I WAS LEAVING AN office building close to London’s Trafalgar Square when I heard the sirens and saw four or five emergency vehicles heading down Whitehall. That was the direction I was going in for my next meeting, but I didn’t see any reason to change my route. There is nothing out of the ordinary about police and ambulance services speeding through the capital.
A few seconds later, a helicopter went overhead at an abnormally low altitude. It was an air ambulance. I started to think that maybe something fairly serious had happened. But although Whitehall is home to many of the big government departments— the Foreign Office, the Treasury, the Ministry of Defence among others—I assumed it was probably a fire or maybe a bad accident on the busy roads nearby.
As I took my usual short-cut alongside the MoD building, I noticed two heavily armed policemen. They were watching the passing pedestrians with great care, but that is their job after all. Still there was nothing to indicate that just a few minutes earlier, a man had driven a car into the crowd of tourists that flocks across Westminster Bridge every day of the year.
When I turned the corner and started to walk towards the House of Parliament, I could see the police closing off the road in front of me. My phone pinged. It was a text from the MP I was due to meet. ‘Have you seen the news?’ she wrote. ‘Shooting in/ outside parliament. You won’t get in and I won’t get out.’ Then a minute later: ‘Think people shot and stabbed. It’s just so bloody depressing these days. Go home or somewhere away from here.’
Members of Parliament were told to stay inside the chamber of the House of Commons. Those who were still in their offices, like the woman I was meeting, were told not to move. They were getting the news on their phones and tablets like everybody else.
As the TV crews and reporters started to arrive, I could see people crouching down beside the bridge, obviously attending to somebody lying on the ground. It was still possible to get remarkably close to where the carnage had happened. The police were only just starting to secure the area.
As we were told to move back further along the road, some of those who had witnessed what happened were escorted through the blue and white plastic that is used to tape off the scene after any incident. Nobody was sure how many people had been hurt, but the potential for very serious loss of life was now obvious. Rumours started to circulate, as they always do, but I knew it was better to wait for some reliable facts to emerge.
I didn’t go home. By profession I’m a journalist; it’s not what we do. But after a while it was clear that the best way we could assist the emergency services was to keep out of their way. I marked myself ‘safe’ on Facebook—the fastest way to reassure friends and family these days—rang my parents, and headed back along the river.
Fortunately, some of the initial reports turned out to be exaggerated. The number of deaths could have been truly horrendous. Two passers-by on the bridge had been killed and a third was to die later in hospital. The shots the MPs had heard had been fired by the police, and the assailant was dead. He had been prevented from entering parliament itself, but not before he had stabbed an unarmed policeman, PC Keith Palmer, with a knife. Efforts to save the officer’s life failed and he too died at the scene.
Compared to Nice or Paris or Brussels or Ankara or Mumbai, on this occasion London had been spared the worst of what terrorism can inflict. But one death is, of course, too many and for every victim, whether killed or injured, there are families and loved ones whose lives have been shattered. And because this is London, the impact was felt all over the world. People from ten different countries, from South Korea to the United States, had been caught up in the violence.
Inevitably attention quickly turned to the identity of the attacker and his possible motivation. The police needed to know as much about him as they could, so they could assess the risk of further attacks and try to work out who, if anybody, he had been working with. Sadly, others were impatient to hear that he was Black, Asian or from the Middle East so they could serve up their pre-cooked assumptions and twisted logic.
One far-right politician, Nigel Farage, said it was time to point the blame at Britain’s multiculturalism. He even went so far as to say the attack bolstered the case for the tougher vetting of migrants, along the lines proposed by US President Trump. Others said it showed Britain was fractured, a nation of ghettos that was more divided than at any time in its history.
When the killer was identified, it emerged that he was born in Kent, just outside London, the same county as Farage. Although he had changed his name to Khalid Masood, he was born Adrian Russell Elms, about as British a name as you can get. He was 52 years of age and hardly fitted the description of a radicalised jihadist. Rather, he was a violent and troubled individual with previous convictions for grievous bodily harm and other non-terrorist offences.
As for the suggestion that Britain was now a divided and fearful country, all the evidence points the other way. Londoners are not easily cowed. As I travelled through the city that evening and the following day, people were busy getting on with their lives. There was no sense of fear or foreboding. When I returned to Westminster the morning after the attack, the only negative reaction I could detect was the mild frustration of joggers who had to find an alternative route because the roads were still closed.
Thousands of people turned out for a vigil of remembrance in Trafalgar Square. Among them were people wearing t-shirts bearing the slogan, ‘I’m Muslim – ask me anything’. The last time I had been to a memorial in the square, it had been for my friend, the MP Jo Cox, who was murdered nine months ago by a White fascist in her Yorkshire constituency. As her husband, Brendan Cox, was quick to point out, the man who had driven his car into innocent people on Westminster Bridge was no more representative of Muslims than the man who killed his wife was representative of the people of Yorkshire.
Those sentiments were shared in reactions across the country. There were many heroes that day. The police officers who ran towards danger while telling the rest of us to go the other way. The doctors, nurses and other health service staff who worked tireless to help the injured. The teachers who had to explain to children that something terrible had happened but they didn’t need to be afraid. Some of those heroes were Muslim, some were Jewish, Christian or Hindu. Others had no religious beliefs at all. What defined them was what they did, not the community or country they came from.
Terrorists want to create fear and spread hatred. Their aim is to drive divisions into the country so that we turn against each other. They want to inspire others to feel so reviled and excluded by society that they, too, will take up arms. And so the politicians who themselves foment hatred towards ‘migrants’ or ‘foreigners’, or whatever terms they choose to define those they seek to stigmatise, are simply doing the terrorists’ work for them. They are despicable.
What encouraged me most in recent days here in London, and across the UK, was seeing just how isolated those views were. Rather than being a recruiting sergeant for the far-right and the racists, the attack brought people together. The country refused to succumb to fear or to be seduced by fear-mongering.
London has witnessed terrorism on a scale far more serious than this before. The tube and bus attacks of 7/7, July 7th, 2005, killed 52 people and injured more than 700 others. Back in the 1970s, when I was at school, Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombs caused death and destruction not only in the capital but across the country with numbing regularity.
By coincidence, the day after the Westminster attack saw the funeral of a man who played a significant part in instigating much of that violence. Martin McGuinness was a murderer and an IRA commander. He had the blood of countless people on his hands and, as a public representative of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, he justified the violent campaign that brought death, injury and misery to thousands of others.
Yet McGuinness’ funeral was attended by people of all faiths, and politicians and statesmen from around the world. Bill Clinton was there and called on everyone to “honour his legacy”. Not, of course, the legacy of murder, but the legacy of a terrorist who turned his back on violence and embraced peace.
I lived and worked in Northern Ireland towards the end of the terrorist campaign McGuinness supported with such conviction. I witnessed the destruction and the impact of the killing at first hand. I got to know McGuinness a little. Later, when I worked for Prime Minister Tony Blair, I never quite got used to seeing him and his fellow Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams inside 10 Downing Street, a building they would have happily destroyed a few years earlier.
He not only turned to peace, but he worked tirelessly—and at considerable risk to himself—to consolidate it and make it work. And while to my mind he was always first and foremost a murderer, it is almost certainly the case that without him the Northern Ireland peace process could never have succeeded.
For me, the most significant tribute Bill Clinton paid to him was that he had “expanded the definition of us and shrunk the definition of them”. If Clinton’s meaning wasn’t immediately clear, as a terrorist McGuinness had sought to portray ‘them’, the Protestant, unionist community and the British, in the worst possible light and to provoke them into brutality in response to the violence he supported. As a peace-maker, he changed tack completely, reaching out to the once-despised ‘them’ and embracing the concept of a society that respected differences and rejected hatred based on religion or cultural identity.
THE MOST IMPORTANT thing about McGuinness and the IRA, however, is that they failed. They tried for two decades to turn suspicion and grievance into civil war and they failed. Once they were forced to recognise their failure, the society they tried to destroy came together to such an extent that even they, the killers, along with those who had committed atrocities from the other side, could be accepted within it. Never forgiven, their crimes never forgotten, but embraced nonetheless. Until shortly before his death from heart disease, McGuinness was Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.
Nobody can claim that the politics of division and the vilification of ‘them’, whoever they may be, never succeeds. Nigel Farage was on the winning side of the Brexit referendum, during which he posed in front of a poster depicting Syrian refugees with the caption ‘Breaking Point’. It was a deliberate attempt to provoke racial hatred and was rightly condemned, not least because Britain’s borders have been opened to pitifully few of those fleeing death and persecution in Syria.
In a democracy, we can debate these things and while we may get angry about our opponents’ tactics, we accept the outcome when the people decide. Terrorists hate democracy because democratic countries consistently reject them and unite against their poisonous ideology. It has just happened again here in Britain.
The more we unite, the more they fail. The more we show a readiness to embrace ‘them’ within our communities, the stronger we become. We don’t have to pretend that they are exactly the same as us; indeed, that is the opposite of the point. The senseless murders on the streets of London produced nothing but pain. The response to them gave us a renewed confidence that when we stand together, we will always be immeasurably more resolute and powerful than those who would seek to drive us apart.