“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” George Eliot wrote in “Middlemarch.” On Thursday, in a statement to the House of Commons about the attack that had occurred right outside Parliament the day before, Prime Minister Theresa May echoed that sentiment, paying tribute to the “millions of acts of normality” that are the most powerful weapons against extremist violence. This was London’s counterattack: to show that it takes more than a murderous rampage through Westminster to shut down this mighty city.
Somber but undaunted, members of Parliament of all parties expressed their admiration for the courage of the police, doctors and nurses who had responded with such speed and vigor, rushing to help those who had been mowed down by car on Westminster Bridge. Four people died in the attack: a London teacher and an American visitor; a police officer, Keith Palmer; and the attacker, who has been identified as a 52-year-old Briton, Khalid Masood. As many as 40 people were injured, several of whom remain in critical condition.
The deputy speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, voiced the feelings of all his colleagues when he described Constable Palmer as “one of our village policemen.”
Westminster is indeed a village, and, as a commentator on Britain’s political scene, I treat it as my professional workplace. For all its architectural grandeur, it is really a noisy souk, a forum for gossip, ideas and haggling. Shortly before the attack, I had been to see a cabinet minister who was worried about a “difficult year ahead” for the government. When I returned, Parliament Square had been closed off by the police and the traffic was gridlocked. The sirens of ambulances told their own distressing story.
“You’d think they’d have sorted it out, for God’s sake,” a taxi driver complained out of his open window, to nobody in particular. As callous as that might sound, it was the authentic voice of London: unfazed, querulous, eccentric. The city’s cabbies are more fearful of traffic than they are of “nutters with knives” (another Londonism I overheard as I walked across Vauxhall Bridge, trying to find a way home).
Here’s what really counts: By Thursday morning, London was, if not quite back to normal, then certainly back in business. As I traveled through the south of the city, up to Chelsea and later over to King’s Cross, Londoners really were going about their lives as on any other day.
This behavior reflects something deeper than conscious defiance, I think. It would simply not occur to the 8.6 million citizens of this megalopolis to allow one man to send them into hiding. As they say in the East End, you’re having a laugh, aren’t you?
It is the stoicism of ancestral pride and present realism. Everyone in this city — as in New York, Tel Aviv, Paris, Brussels, Berlin — acknowledges the daily threat of low-tech terrorism.
Although MI5, the domestic security service, has achieved remarkable success in recent years, it cannot foil every conspiracy or lone wolf radicalized online by the bloodstained software of Islamism. Some years ago, we learned, the assailant had flitted across the intelligence community’s radar, as a peripheral figure. Absent a police state, it is impossible to monitor every such individual.
This was not the first attack like this on London and everyone knows it will not be the last. In such an age, and in such circumstances, the only way to proceed is — in the much-loved British slogan — to keep calm and carry on.
There was something else detectable in the fresh spring air, too. The last year, dominated by the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, has been one of brewing nativism and frequently ugly talk about immigration. Even as the injured were being treated, Britain’s equivalent of the alt-right tweeted with revolting ignorance about “illegals,” the very word that President Trump used, incorrectly, to describe Syrian refugees in a postelection interview with The Times of London. (In fact, the man named as the attacker was reportedly born in Kent, in southeast England.)
And speaking of the first family, Donald Trump Jr.’s ill-informed and insulting criticism of our mayor, Sadiq Khan, via Twitter did not go down well here. British anger at such brazen examples of political opportunism has been remarkable, and reached beyond social media. Britons love a political row, but they also know that there is a time and a place. This was most definitely not an occasion to score political points. The president’s son should not plan on visiting a London pub any time soon.
Of course, the divisions of the past year have not suddenly been healed, nor the poison put back in its bottle. But in conversations, on the radio, in the countenance of passers-by, you could sense a fresh recognition that this is the greatest city on earth because of, rather than in spite of, its extraordinary diversity.
Those who long for a monocultural London want something back that has never existed. Not since the glorious opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics have I felt such pride to live in such a multifarious city, a planetary community.
“Yesterday, we saw the worst of humanity,” Mrs. May said, “but we will remember the best.” That’s absolutely right. It is a commonplace that pain and love are closely related, but true nonetheless. As Londoners absorbed the horror of what had happened, they quietly reaffirmed a principle that has served them well for centuries: that they — we — will not bow to fear.
Matthew d’Ancona is a political columnist for The Guardian and The Evening Standard and a contributing opinion writer.