The Script We All Follow After a Terror Attack
Five years ago atrocities were followed by speechlessness. Now, everyone has their bit to say and their part to play.
Photos credit: Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images
(Top photo: Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images)
Three days before yesterday's attack in Westminster, 200 anti-terrorism police took part in a large simulated operation, zipping across the Thames to rescue "hostages" being held on a hijacked river cruiser. As a Met Police commander told the media, "This kind of exercise demonstrates that should a terrible event ever happen for real, London is ready for it in the most efficient and effective way possible."
And they were ready. Minutes after the attacker ploughed his car into the railings by the Houses of Parliament, the entire area was cordoned off and swarming with heavily armed cops in black uniforms. Parliament was put on lockdown. When the air ambulances arrived there were plans in place so they'd know exactly where to land. People knew exactly what they were meant to do. It was all seamless, all mechanised. This had been expected.
But the cops and the medics weren't alone. Everyone's doing the same thing; we all have our own contingency plans, our own half-conscious preparations for what we'll do or say. Millions of people have been practicing in their heads, working out how to respond the next time people are killed in large numbers on what started out as just another ordinary day. Respectful silence is never an option. We have rituals for these things now: you mark yourself safe on Facebook, you use the #PrayForLondon hashtag, you post Keep Calm signs and pictures of Winston Churchill, you talk about the Blitz spirit, you insist that you're not afraid – and you're not. You had a plan for this, too.
Watching the news as it unfolded, I found myself hearing things I'd heard before. Without anything to report on beyond the sparse, brutal facts, the TV newsreaders fell back on their scripts. If you were particularly cynical, you could map out everything that Sky and the BBC would say right from the first moment, without even needing to watch.
First, gruesome shots of the victims, contradictory and unclear casualty numbers, promises of statements later from politicians and police. Then, inevitably, the line that "it's not yet been confirmed whether or not this is a terrorist attack" – which is, of course, a monstrous and galling euphemism for "we've not yet been told what the attacker's race is". Even the chaos and confusion follows its own pattern. Speculation of multiple attackers, news of a manhunt for a man that doesn't exist. Someone will be wrongly identified as the perpetrator; all the media outlets will publish a flurry of biographical details, and then some intern will have to go back into the CMS and add a correction at the top. They're just playing their role.
And every play has its villains. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – the supposedly reformed racist has-been who calls himself Tommy Robinson – started wandering around Westminster, insisting to anyone who might listen that this was all the fault of Islam and its allies in the corrupt and servile media. He wasn't there to help, and he had no good reason to be there – except to get himself on TV and make somebody else's horror all about him. After all, being noticed is his job. And that same corrupt and servile media eagerly complied; the news crews lapped up everything he had to say and splashed it across their websites, because they have a job to do as well.
It can't have been five minutes between the first gunshots and the first leering, sadistic messages on Twitter. How are those open borders working out, then? Refugees still welcome? Don't you see what happens when you let foreigners into your country? These people can never quite contain their hand-rubbing glee; they're glad that this happened, and they want it to happen over and over again. They want daily body counts, gunshots and explosions all over Europe, mountains of the dead – not because that's their goal, but because it will prove that they were right all along.
It doesn't matter that there was no indication whatsoever that the attack was carried out by a migrant. The script was in play. But then, just as much as these people were wishing and hoping for the Islamic terror wave they'd always wanted, others were wishing for the opposite. I know I was, at least; desperate to believe that this was something else, hoping against hope that it wouldn't become another excuse for politicians to shut down the borders or for ordinary bigots to start attacking people in the street. Whatever happens, it's always time to fight the same fights, against the same enemies. A terrorist attack isn't something shattering normal life; it's whatever reality you believe in reasserting itself.
This isn't a complaint against the politicisation of tragedy; a terrorist attack is nothing if not a political act. There's no more important time to fight against racism and war and all the horrors that make these deeds possible. But something's been lost: the ability to mourn. Even as late as 2005, mass killings were followed by genuine grief, the speechlessness that's proper to atrocity. That's disappeared now: there's no sense of the monstrosity of murder, of the sheer cruel irretrievability of the lives that vanished on a Wednesday afternoon. Even before it happens, it's wrapped up in its narratives and prejudices. Everyone's watching now, which means everyone's performing: you stand on the corpses of the dead and do your dance for the cameras. And then I complain about it, and do exactly the same thing.
Terrorism is losing its power to terrorise, and that's not necessarily anything to be happy about. Tommy Robinson, striding about in Westminster after the attack, flapped his arm in the direction of the river and shouted "this is a war". It's not a war. It's not a clash of civilisations. It's not the sudden intrusion of violence and barbarism into everyday life. It's just what happens now. Another scrap in our endless 21st century tussle, one more little shard of brutality in the general wreckage.
The violent reactionary jihadists pull from one side, the violent reactionary nationalists push from the other, and the event isn't complete until everyone does their apportioned bit. Murderers and cops, journalists and racists, the people howling for more bloodshed, the people begging for calm, all of us working together on a single production, and all of us following the script to perfection. Terrorism doesn't stop anything, and it certainly doesn't cause anything to change. It's just an excuse for everyone to do what they were doing already, but more; the gears shifting, the speed increasing, as the whole world becomes colder, crueller and worse.