Not long after the Parsons Green Tube bombing, another of those viral, defiant-in-the-face-of-terror cartoons started doing the rounds. It was quite witty — a section of Tube map, redrawn in the shape of a hand giving those pesky terrorists the middle finger. But it wasn’t remotely funny. In order for humour to work it has to spark a feeling of amused recognition. This did the opposite. It said something that all but the most deluded among us know to be a complete lie.
The lie is that when a terrorist bomb fails to detonate properly and injures ‘only’ a dozen or so people, rather than killing scores, this constitutes some kind of moral victory; that Londoners — indeed Britons generally — now accept such incidents as ‘part and parcel of living in the big city’; that our mood is not one of fear, helplessness and apprehension but of cheery optimism and determination not to have our lifestyles altered in the face of terror.
Really? Perhaps someone should have explained this to the passengers on the London to Birmingham train a couple of days after the Parsons Green bomb. The teenage daughter of some friends was in one carriage and told me what happened. ‘There was a weird beeping noise which no one could explain. Then a funny smell. Everyone was looking at each other, like: “What are we going to do? This is horrible! We’re not going to make it home. We’re going to die here now!” Then this man next to me pulled the emergency cord and the train stopped.’
It turned out to be a false alarm. With impressive speed, a railway employee appeared and assessed that it was safe to resume the journey. So: not a drama you’re going to read about it in the papers. But my point is, look at how all those passengers reacted; see how quickly their terrified imaginations were triggered by sounds and smells (brake fluid, probably) that, not so long ago, they would have accepted as part of the routine rattle, whistle and pong of a typical railway journey. This is the new normal. Yet our political class remains in a state of denial. As does the BBC. Just this morning, I heard it vox-popping sundry unflappable District Line commuters — the modern equivalent of that presumably staged but iconic second world war photo of the jolly milkman doing his rounds in the rubble of the Blitz — as part of its now familiar, life-goes-on-as-normal response to every terror event.
‘No, we’re not bovvered,’ the doughty commuters all insisted — those the BBC felt worthy of quoting, at any rate. But frankly, what other option do they have? We can’t all be like Marco Pierre White Jr, the son of the celebrity chef, who tweeted: ‘Parsons Green Tube station this morning was targeted by terrorists, this is why I don’t take the tube #theRichDontDie.’ Tasteless it may have been, which is why he apologised and withdrew it, but it contained more than a grain of truth.
Of course we’re going to go on taking public transport, because how else are we going to get to work? But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to squirm involuntarily every time someone of Middle Eastern appearance gets on with a rucksack or a coat that looks a bit too bulgy. Nor that we’re not going to spend our whole journey feeling like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.
In private, people admit this. Rarely in public, though, as it contradicts an official narrative that seeks to brand those who express such qualms as letting the side down, apparently because it’s not how British people should behave. It goes: ‘We stood up to the Nazis during the Blitz. We stood up to the IRA. Now we’re responding with the same sangfroid and stiff upper lip to all this bothersome, but perfectly manageable nonsense from Johnny Muslim.’
What’s odd is that the people who most commonly express this point of view are the kind of people — BBC journalists, celebrities, Guardian columnists, lefty students — who would hitherto have felt embarrassed by such jingoism. There has been a weird inversion where robust, right-wing Churchillian types who think something must be done have been cast as lily-livered surrender monkeys, while the progressive appeasers portray themselves as indomitable heroes.
It’s canny politics and an excellent way for open-borders, SJW types to goad Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson on Twitter. But I don’t think this Keep Calm and Carry On nonsense — which reached peak stupid when breakfast TV presenter Phillip Schofield filmed himself walking fearlessly over Westminster Bridge the day after the attack there — is doing anyone much good. In fact it’s only putting us more gravely at risk.
The longer this ‘Keep buggering on and it will all eventually go away’ narrative persists, the longer our MPs will be able to delay doing anything to address the problem. Barely four months ago, 22 children and adults were blown to pieces, and 250 injured, for the crime of going to an Ariana Grande pop concert. In any other era, so appalling an incident would be as seared into the public consciousness as, say, the sinking of the Titanic or the immolation of the R101, with concerted action from politicians of all parties to make sure such a terrible thing never happened again.
And what has our generation of politicians done? Called a few Cobra meetings. Declared the occasional Level 5 security threat. Claimed emptily that ‘enough is enough’. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 3, 000 suspects who pose an ‘active’ terror threat, and security services reckon another 20,000 pose a ‘residual risk’.* When did any of us ever vote for this to be our new normal? Isn’t it about time something was done?
*This article originally stated: ‘there are an estimated ’32, 000 Muslims eager to commit the next terror atrocity’. This was a mistake: it should have read 23, 000. We have revised the text to be more clear, and apologise for the error.