London after the Westminster attack: let’s go for cool defiance

We know how this poison works. You didn’t have to be there for the horror of what happened yesterday on Westminster Bridge and within the grounds of the Palace of Westminster for it to get inside your head. The pain of the bereaved, the injured and those fearful for their fate is an emotional core of from which chilling ripples of anxiety began spreading across the whole of the capital and beyond as soon as the atrocity occurred.

Threat, fear and the stirring of a corrosive foreboding are the weapons of terror just as much as bombs, guns, knives and motor vehicles used as murder machines are. Repelling them too is a mental battle. Londoners and those who come to work in this city every day have been doing it for years, and with particular intent since the bombings of 7 July 2005.

Awareness of terror threat levels, an insinuating nervousness in crowds, seeing armed Met officers at stations and in shopping malls, saying routine goodbyes to loved ones with just a little extra care have all become part of the London state of mind. Our empathy with terror’s principal victims, for their blamelessness, trauma and loss, makes smaller, psychological victims of us all as we go about the city. The sense in which every day not spent cowering somewhere is a throw of the urban dice has become bleaker and more acute.

But we are, most of us, still here. We got out of bed. We went to work, to shops, to schools. We rode the buses, trains and Underground. We may, perhaps, appreciate a little better the sheer vastness of the task faced by the police and other security services, the dangers that come with their work and the demands made on emergency medical crews. Perhaps, who knows, more of us now recognise that Westminster politicians can be admirable and selfless human beings and that our democracy is precious, for all its flaws.

Our mayor, Sadiq Khan, has played his part in the city’s response wisely and well. His statements and media appearances have been resolute, appreciative and determined yet calm. His insistence that London is one of the world’s safest cities struck a confident note without conveying complacency. His assertion that Londoners will stand together in the face of the divisive pressures that terror seeks to create and in so doing protect the city’s way of life was the more persuasive for its subtle reference to London’s history: “We always have and we always will.”

He stopped short of fighting talk, and that felt right. Days like Wednesday might come again. Bellicosity would have been hot air. Displays of rancour and rage won’t serve us well. We need unity, nerve and cool defiance. And we must never forget those who died. A candlelit vigil will be held for them at Trafalgar Square this evening from 6:00 until 7:00.

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