A friend of mine called me from London today wanting to know if it was just him, or was everybody getting carried away by the idea that the capital, and Parliament, had been lucky to survive a massive terrorist onslaught.
I assured him he was not alone. Obviously, the incident was a serious one. The lives lost and injuries caused to innocent bystanders are testament to the evil of what took place, while the role played by PC Keith Palmer – murdered by a psychopath – provided a glimpse of humanity at its best. The surviving victims, and their loved ones, do not need to be told that something terrible happened. It happened to them. It is the reaction of the rest of us that needs to be called into question.
This was not 9/11. It was not our Bataclan. Nor was it a repeat of what happened in London in July, 2005, when 52 people were killed and scores more injured in a coordinated series of attacks by affiliates of Al Qaeda.
What happened this week was that a single deranged individual, with a criminal past, hired a car in Birmingham, armed himself with a kitchen knife and drove south to make a name for himself as an Islamist madman. Having driven at speed onto the footpath of Westminster Bridge, he succeeded in mowing down a number of pedestrians, killing at least three, before crashing his vehicle and continuing his rampage on foot.
Upon entering the precincts of the Palace of Westminster, he was confronted by PC Palmer, an unarmed copper, whom he stabbed to death before being shot dead himself by one of several armed officers.
Had he been armed with a sub-machine gun, or even a pistol, he might have killed several more people. Had he been one of a team of killers, tooled up for a high-powered exchange, perhaps involving grenades as well as automatic weapons, there is no knowing what the outcome might have been. Several officers, a number of civilians, perhaps even a handful of MPs could have died. It would have been an event of truly historic proportions.
As it was, what we are left with is the slime trail of a frustrated petty criminal-turned half-baked jihadi. Khalid Masood/Adrian Elms/Adrian Russell/Adrian Russell Ajao – whatever his bloody name was – was a vicious thug. He may have suffered some racial abuse when he was younger, but even if he did, this would not even begin to justify the slaughter in which he indulged on Wednesday afternoon.
The simple truth is that Masood was a radicalised small-time thug, and what we should be concerned with now, apart from stepping up security around Parliament, is the likelihood that other such “lone wolves” are on the loose, ready to strike again at the symbols of our democracy and way of life.
Masood was not the Luftwaffe, and Londoners on Thursday were not survivors of the Blitz. We really have to stop congratulating ourselves on our bulldog spirit every time something horrible happens. We really need to stop announcing that we are not afraid and that we will never bow the knee to tyrants or terrorists.
Who ever said we were afraid or that we were ever likely to give in to terror?
That said, the reality on Wednesday was that most of those who actually heard the gunfire ran for their lives – as well they might. Witnesses, including reporters looking on from their parliamentary offices, recorded much screaming and general hysteria. No one knew what to do or what was happening. Ordinary Londoners, in other words, were afraid, very afraid.
Sign up for our FREE Reaction Weekend Email
Read the week's best-read articles on politics, business and geopolitics
Receive offers and exclusive invites
Plus uplifting cultural commentary
We weren’t noble. We were normal.
This does not mean there was any lack of decency, courage and public duty on display. Lots of people, British and foreign, did what they could to help those who had been run over by Masood’s marauding SUV. The Tory MP Tobias Ellwood risked his own safety in trying to breath life into the stricken PC Palmer, an officer he had known in a past life when both were soldiers. And, of course, Palmer himself made the ultimate sacrifice, standing up to a crazed assailant while armed with nothing more than his truncheon, which he did not even have time to draw. If a memorial to his bravery should be erected in Palace Yard, it will be no more than he deserves.
But this was not the Bulldog breed at bay, shaking our fists at the enemy and saying, like Churchill, “alone then, very well … alone”. If and when that moment should come (and we must pray that it does not), we will know the difference.
Today, and tomorrow, and the day after that, London will be about its work. The pubs will be full, there will be office rows, houses will be sold for millions, life-saving operations will be carried out in St Thomas’s hospital, City conspiracies will be hatched and there will be delays on Southern Trains. It will, in fact, be business as usual. For how could it be otherwise?