When I rolled my wheelchair out of my apartment block this Sunday morning – mere hours after three attackers killed seven a few hundred yards away in London Bridge and Borough Market – the most striking thing was the sense of calm.
American headlines such as that in the New York Times describing the country as “reeling” are wide off the mark. Indeed, mocking such coverage is itself a coping strategy for us. If anything, London and Manchester in particular – like New York after 9/11 – are showing a muscular, communal self-confidence since coming under attack in recent weeks.
As in World War Two, when London and other cities endured the repeated air raids of the Blitz, people are scared but not prepared to show weakness. There’s a robust, almost savage pride in the armed police response that left all three attackers dead within eight minutes of the first emergency call.
By the time police arrived, it now appears that the three knife-wielding militants were being pushed back by customers wielding bottles and chairs. A Romanian baker hit one over the head with a crate. Such tales will stick in British mythology for a long time. Knowing that corner of London, I would expect nothing less.
No one doubts the U.K. is facing a serious problem. With the May 22 Manchester bombing, as well as the vehicle and knife attack in Westminster exactly two months earlier, the tempo of attacks on civilians is now even greater than at the height of Irish Republican Army bombing campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s.
Britons don’t believe America covered itself in glory after the recent attacks. The ludicrous inability of the U.S. national security infrastructure to keep even the most basic operational detail secret after the Manchester bombing provoked widespread frustration amongst both officials and the public.
President Donald Trump’s tweets have hardly helped, particularly his attacks on London’s first Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan. For all the assumptions that the attacks would inflame communal tensions, the opposite may be happening, most particularly in the affected cities.
Sunday night’s Manchester concert, showcasing a range of local and international artists and attendees from across ethnic communities, was a particularly striking show of solidarity.
Some parts of Britain’s security response worked well, others less so. Gaps have been identified. There is now a genuine and urgent debate on what to do next, one that will inevitably feed into the U.K. election campaign ahead of polling day on June 8.
Britain’s police might be under-resourced and mostly unarmed, but they have proved amongst the best in the world when it comes to an immediate response. They have been preparing for situations like these since the 2008 Mumbai attacks killed 164 people, and both their training and efforts in refining command-and-control paid off on Saturday night.
That’s not to say there haven’t been oversights elsewhere. Government buildings in places like Whitehall have long been surrounded by bollards, but concrete obstacles were not put in place on London’s most important bridges until Monday morning, more than a day after the attacks. That should have happened sooner.
In many respects, Britain’s Muslim communities hold the key to stopping assaults claimed by groups like Islamic State, whether carried out by recent British converts, second-generation migrants or anyone else. No one disputes that there have been problems in integration, even if talk of predominantly Muslim “no go areas” in the U.K. remains a gross over-exaggeration.
The good news, however, is that it appears friends and relatives of the attackers in both Manchester and London had already expressed concern about them to the authorities. On Sunday, the Muslim Council of Britain announced a new campaign to ensure that happens more often.
That says something reassuring about Britain’s relationship with its Muslim population. The issue, it seems, is that such reports were not followed up.
It’s important not to be too judgmental here. Police and security services are invariably overstretched, and inevitably individuals will slip through nets. But we have to do better, particularly when those around an individual are openly telling authorities there is a threat.
This is dangerous territory for Prime Minister Theresa May. As Home Secretary from 2010 until last year, she was responsible for the police and law enforcement – and she is hugely unpopular with rank-and-file officers.
At one conference in 2015, May was told by an award-winning front-line Manchester officer that cuts to community police units would make it much harder to track potential attackers – exactly what appears to have happened in these assaults. The video has been widely shared in the last two weeks.
A botched snap election campaign was already undermining her position before the latest London attack. An expected landslide victory has evaporated amid U-turns and a bizarre unwillingness to face discussion and debate. Some within her own party are now openly calling for her resignation.
That almost certainly won’t happen. In the last weeks of the election, Britain’s opposition Labour Party has been surging in the polls but it may not have closed the gap.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest weakness could still be his willingness to talk with the Irish Republican militants who attacked the U.K. 30 years ago. His statements this weekend, however, have been a full throated defense of Britain as an inclusive liberal democracy, pledging greater support for the police and security services.
Even if Corbyn does not win, Labour’s most left-wing manifesto in a generation has proved remarkably popular. Labour mayors Khan in London and Andy Burnham in Manchester have provided firm, inspiring leadership during these attacks, and either could be a future party leader. I wrote last week that opposition to Trump, Putin and extremism in mainland Europe seemed to have given centrist politicians new heart. Something similar may be happening on the British left now, and these attacks will help shape it.
Last Friday afternoon, one of Britain’s former top counterterrorism officials told me that most individuals who join Islamic State or conduct attacks do so because they are desperate for a compelling identity, a path that offers excitement and redemption that they cannot find elsewhere.
The potent public response to the latest attacks sends a different message. It tells would-be assailants they will be swiftly gunned down and dubbed cowards. But it also offers them a real option to find their place in a society that welcomes diversity while venerating crate-throwing bakers, concert-goers and armed response officers.
There will almost certainly be more attacks – or attempts at them. But they will bring the country closer together, not the other way around.
Britain has always relished defining itself as under attack. At times that can be toxic – as it may yet prove with Brexit. But in my grandparents’ time, that dogged determination held off Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and created the Welfare State. The nation is perfectly capable of producing such greatness again.