The cowardly car-and-knife attack in Westminster yesterday is a reminder of the great pain individual terrorists can inflict. A teacher killed, a policeman stabbed to death, French students badly injured. One man with nasty ideas and crude weapons can do terrible things.
But this pointless, vile assault should also remind us of one of the prime responsibilities of us citizens at times like this: to ensure that terrorism has no impact beyond its murderous one. To do everything within our power to make sure that while this bloody, scrappy act may have succeeded in impacting awfully on scores of individuals, it will have no impact on our values, our political life, our daily lives, or our sense of security.
That’s the power of the citizen in relation to terrorism: to deny it the baleful effect on society that it so desires; to stymie its shockwaves; to refuse to give it the response of fear that it craves, and needs.
Many are describing yesterday’s assault as an ‘attack on democracy’, a shot against our values of ‘democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law’, as Theresa May put it. But no individual, no matter how well armed — and this man wasn’t well-armed — can overthrow democracy or freedom. Those long-fought-for values are too robust, too steeped in the aspirations of past generations and current generations, to be done in by a warped man with a weaponised vehicle, a knife, and a perverse belief in a reward of 72 virgins for killing non-believers.
No, in order to impact on democracy and freedom, this individual needs the help of us, of society itself. He needs us to respond to his act in such a way that we would amplify its horror beyond the killing of individuals and into the realm of changing society itself. This is the perverse thing about terrorism: it is dependent for its power on mainstream thinking, particularly the culture of fear. It is an extreme act, yes, but one which seeks to connect with and exploit conventional political ideas, especially the 21st-century tendency to overreact to terror and institute new laws, clampdowns and dread in response to it.