Last September London mayor Sadiq Khan said that terrorist attacks were “part and parcel” of living in a big city. Though his conclusion was far from nonchalant, he went on to say, “That means being vigilant, having a police force that is in touch with communities, it means the security services being ready, but it also means exchanging ideas and best practice.”
At the time, he must have known that his words would one day prove prophetic, that it was only a matter of time.
On Wednesday, March 22nd, his prediction became a reality as a terrorist attack was perpetrated on the people of London and the British Houses of Parliament. 52-year old Khalid Masood, who was claimed by ISIS as a soldier following the attack, crashed a car into a crowd of people on Westminster bridge, then began attacking pedestrians with a knife before succumbing to three gunshot wounds.
His actions claimed the lives of three people, among them a police officer, and injured many more. Although Masood was not on any government watch lists for suspicion of terrorist activities, he had a range of prior convictions for assaults, including one for grievous bodily harm.
It is currently believed that he acted alone. However, his actions have still resulted in six arrests with potentially more to follow.
The United Kingdom has been singled out by ISIS as the next target for a major attack since the Paris attacks in 2015. The British government had listed the threat of terrorism as severe, meaning that an attack was “highly likely.” While it is unlikely that status will be downgraded any time soon, British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a statement saying, "we will all move forward together, never giving in to terror and never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart."
Indeed, the reaction of the British people, and of Londoners in particular, has been characteristically stiff upper lipped. Memes saying “We are not afraid” on the London Underground logo have populated every corner of the internet, and the world appears to stand in solidarity with the United Kingdom. How could we not?
My heart goes out to the people of London and the families of the victims, and of the attacker, who was a British native and whose family will face terrible discrimination and scrutiny in the months to come. I hope they will all forgive me for what I am about to write.
I cannot feign shock at this attack.
Though degenerate and inhuman, it represents only yet another bland road post in the campaign against ISIS, a recurrent and seemingly unchanging annual attack against a major western city. We are now almost four years into a protracted ideological conflict with ISIS and its affiliates, and little seems to have changed.
We continue drone strikes and arm’s-length support for those fighting; they continue to radicalize individuals and send them to their deaths in forlorn hope attacks. This arrangement has become the status quo. Though our presentation of a united front, our rhetoric, and our ability to change Facebook profile filters when a new attack is perpetrated is convincing, the stalemate speaks to a need for more action.
There is a deep hypocrisy in standing with the people of London, or Paris, or Brussels in the media or as individuals, but abandoning the millions under the oppressive rule of ISIS. Are these terrorists not enemy combatants? Are we not locked in an intractable conflict with them, and do we not know who they are? How can we, as citizens of a western democracy, not react with more severity to this affront to our society and identity?
The continued existence of ISIS and their ability to perpetrate attacks abroad is an indicator of moral weakness and indifference among the leadership of the free world. The body count alone should incite us to action, if not that then the intellectual and moral imperative we must take against those who attack civilians in holy war.
While it feels good to write that, I must also admit to being gripped by an existential dread at taking this stance. I have no notion of what attacking ISIS would entail, nor do I think a glorious invasion would be anything of the sort. I can appreciate the near-infinite complexity of politics in the Middle East, and have no illusions that western military intervention would be a pragmatic solution to the manifold conflicts there.
I also understand that the ideology of violence and terror is taking hold in people born and raised in the very countries they attack. That they are exclusively men and are exclusively influenced by a school of radical Islam that sanctions their behavior. I find these things difficult to reconcile with a belief in equality and decency with which I court every day. I find it impossible to lay the blame at the feet of any one group or party or nation.
So the direction of the action that common sense demands is uncertain. I must step back and admit my lack of qualification in these matters. But, something must be done – either to offer alternatives to radicalization or to extinguish the scourge of ISIS from the planet, or both – because this continuing lazy cycle of violence and retribution will destroy our society. It will sow further seeds of hate and radicalism. It will make us hate our neighbors.
If we really want to stand in solidarity, we will do something to prevent it.