My heart goes out to the family and friends of those killed yesterday in London and to those injured. And when I think, especially, that my own son was right there in Westminster just last week on a school trip, the depth and awfulness of the tragic, meaningless, senseless loss of life is simply too much to bear. By any reckoning, the personal situation here is just too bad for words and even our prayers can be nothing other than groans deeper than words.
The personal situation is awful. But I want to comment, also, on the national situation. Nationally, tragedy happens all the time. Tragedy happens so often that the vast majority of it is not reported in the press – it is just too normal. Car accidents, heart attacks, suicides and, even, silly-seeming things like falling down the stairs claim thousands of people every year (just the latter claiming an average of almost 2 a day in 2011, according the the Guardian).
And then, compared to these sudden deaths, there are the vast majority of expected ones from cancer and dementia and other diseases that generally give some notice of impending doom. We need to remember these facts when responding to terrorism, to remember that, at a national level, terrorism has vanishingly little power to harm physically. It doesn’t even come close to the power of falling down the stairs. If the purpose of terrorism is to cause physical harm at a national level, then terrorism is pathetic.
I keep saying “at a national level” for two reasons. First, the target of terrorism is clearly national rather than personal. The people killed and injured yesterday were not carefully-picked targets at all. The only selection criterion was that they happened to be in the centre of the capital city. The attack was aimed at the nation, not at individuals. Second, our response to terrorism is so often a national one. The entire nation reels in shock that such a thing can happen to us. We tend to batten down the hatches, escalating police presence and powers, passing sometimes-draconian new laws. These are national responses.
But the tragedy is a personal tragedy. It only becomes a national tragedy because we make it one. And this is where the real power of terrorism lies. Terrorism’s aim is not, first and foremost, to harm the body but to harm the mind. Terrorism strikes at the mind of a nation through the physical bodies of a few people chosen at random. Terrorism has the power to redirect entire economies because it generates terror. That’s the point.
And that, too, is the weakness of terrorism. The only real power is has, at a national level, is to cause terror. But terror is a response. It is our response. And we have the ability to control that response! We do not need to reel in shock. We do not need to fear other attacks. We do not need draconian new measures. Because the physical threat is minuscule. Each of us, individually, has a far greater chance of dying by falling down the stairs than dying at the hand of a terrorist. Terrorism is, in the end, laughable.
And laughter is exactly what our response should be, to say “is that all you’ve got?” And here lies, paradoxically, the end of terrorism as well. If terrorism loses the power to strike terror into the heart of a nation, it no longer has a purpose. If we respond in terror to terrorism, we encourage terrorists because we’ve given them what they wanted. If we shrug it off, we undermine all reason for committing any further acts. If we want to end terrorism, then we need, simply, to start ignoring it. To keep calm and carry on.
We need to speak to terrorism in a similar way to how John Donne speaks to death:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
Terrorism, be not proud. At a personal level, you are an awful, senseless evil. But you do not strike at a personal level, you strike at the heart of a nation, and the heart of this nation laughs at you.