Do we need to think again about how our society handles terrorism, asks Christopher Jackson, in the wake of the Westminster attack March 22.
New York. Madrid. Paris. London. Bali. Nice. Brussels. Each has experienced in this digital but morbid century a major terrorist attack perpetrated by people of criminal bent in the name of the religion of Islam. To this we must now add Westminster.
“Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are to see anything,” wrote Saul Bellow in Humboldt’s Gift. In each of the attacks listed above, the murderers rushing toward their oblivion might have been surprised by the ramifications of their actions. Each attack has led to the opposite of what was intended: In creating “the dark backing,” they did not know that they were also creating mirrors.
Once the shock subsides, grief and misery cede in time to a hypertrophied sense of whichever place was subject to violence. New York’s remaining towers never looked so splendid as on September 12, 2001. The Nice atrocities — once the world had recovered from the surprise of politically motivated death meted out in a place so much implicated in the apolitical activity of the sea — in time reflected back at us the sleepy loveliness of that place, its lemon calm. The Brussels killings might have been enough to make even the ardent Eurosceptic pause a moment and lay aside the urgency of Brexit to admit other thoughts. These places were selected for “terror” because they are each, to millions of people, worth living in: They are homes to excessive toil and dizzying contention perhaps, but also to hopes, possibilities, even to beauty.
And now we are left to think upon Westminster. It’s a place of rich association. First and foremost, it’s the seat of the U.K.’s parliamentary democracy, the scene of the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act, the theatrical rivalry of Gladstone and Disraeli, and not just some of the speeches but also the marriage of Winston Churchill (St. Margaret’s lies just across the way). It hasn’t in the last year always produced an especially edifying spectacle, what with the ramped-up atmosphere of childishness surrounding the EU referendum. But once the killer Khalid Masood had driven his car along that vector of unnecessary mayhem in late March, we were reminded of Westminster’s good intentions, and that good is attempted in its precincts more than you might think.
Upon Jack the Ripper
This was an appalling act of mass murder. We mourn — as we have become used to doing — those who ought now to be encountering the spring another time, and who ought to be moving toward the fulfilment of their natural spans. Who knows what potential, and what scope of love, was cut off in those four victims on March 22.
Yet in another sense, death ought to be no surprise by now. Since Cain, murder has been a fact of life. And nine stops along the District Line east of Westminster you will find Whitechapel where, in the grimly terrifying autumn of 1888, the killer who became known as Jack the Ripper carried out the murders of Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. How different were these murders to Mahmood’s March 2017 spree? The Ripper created a media inheritance we still inhabit: It might be argued that from the Whitechapel murders we receive our sensationalist approach to crime. When the famous “Dear Boss” letter (whether written by the killer himself or by the perpetrator of a hoax) was sent to the Central News Agency, it was forwarded to the Metropolitan police, which published it, giving us the soubriquet of our most notorious killer. It was a marriage of the unfailing power of death to astonish with our need for the up-to-date bulletin, and the latest fact. It marked a new era in our fascination with evil.
But there has always been uneasiness with that fascination. On the day of the Westminster attack, there was widespread weariness in London. Everybody is sick of being afraid, but sometimes one wonders whether fear has already been replaced with a secret boredom. Our culture has never been so vibrant on the one hand — neon-lit and starry, the flicker of the screens always there to accompany us. And yet when the medieval claim of the terrorist enters our entertaining lives, we find ourselves ill-equipped. We are tired of that moment when you are suddenly not enjoying the opera or the theater because you have remembered the Moscow theater hostage crisis. Or there is that nervous Tube journey, where you get out a stop early sure the place is about to blow up, and the subsequent desultory walk you’d not be doing had morbidity not overtaken you.
But this ennui is not aimed — perhaps it isn’t even primarily aimed — at the perpetrators. In London, with its pedigree of experiencing modern terror stretching back to at least the IRA, there is also irritation at the way in which the media sensationalize what in one sense are mundane crimes. It is as if we have forgotten what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil: The murderous have, among other things, elected to be uninteresting. After Westminster, the eminently sensible journalist Simon Jenkins explained in The Guardian:
[E]very decision to publish an item of news involves a choice, a judgment. That is not “censorship”. For those seeking publicity for their misdeeds, there is a world of difference between the top spot on the news and the bottom. If the intention is not just to kill a few but thereby to terrify a multitude, the media is an essential accomplice.
It takes some bravery to write that sort of thing when other people are laying flowers and kind notes of grief at the scene. But if we cannot have this conversation about media coverage and the way in which it aids a terrorist like Mahmood, when it matters, in the aftermath of an attack, then we might never have it at all. And not to have it, might mean we are beholden for the foreseeable future to what Claudius in Hamlet calls “obsequious sorrow.”
A Case of Definition
In times of crisis, it is not unwise to fall back on dictionaries.
How does a terrorist differ from a criminal? In our grief and in our panic, we are in danger of not thinking clearly. Samuel Johnson — the 18th-century writer who lived about a mile from the scene of the Westminster attack — defined a “lexicographer” as a harmless drudge, but I think a true understanding of the meaning of words can instead be a liberation toward nothing less than a better life. Define your terms, as Spinoza would say.
The Oxford Dictionary defines “terrorism” as “The unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.” A “crime” meanwhile is defined as “An action or omission which constitutes an offence and is punishable by law.”
Jenkins’ point is that when the second happens, we treat it very differently from the first, except in rare cases of politically unmotivated mass murder. But when the first occurs (or is deemed to have occurred), the media goes into overdrive: One recalls Donald Trump, in the blessed time when he was merely a presidential candidate, announcing after the Nice and Brussels attacks: “France and Belgium are literally disintegrating.” Of course, they weren’t, and besides, if they do, it will more likely be because of him.
One might almost wish to amend “political aims” to “realistic political aims.” All depends on the state of mind of the perpetrator: It might be, for all we know, that Jack the Ripper had a series of anti-Semitic political aims independent from the astounding butchery of the murders. There was, for instance, the grisly note in chalk, “the Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing” scrawled in Goulston Street after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes. And yet we tend to think of it as a sexual murder and deem any political aspects secondary. That didn’t stop it topping the news, but it topped the news as crime, not politics. Why should Mahmood, whose mental state is in doubt, not be treated instead as a criminal?
There’s the choice of location, which one doubts was without meaning to him. But there is also the fact that he was Muslim. And the fear is that the second fact is giving a killer like Mahmood a prominence he doesn’t deserve. An unreasoned act is treated seriously, almost as a kind of statement, and this in turn fails to take into account the simplicity of his rage, the extent of his torment, and lends a bogus geopolitical ratification to a largely individual folly.
Reflections in Brookwood Cemetery
None of the newspapers report where Masood is buried. One possible place is in Surrey southeast of London. Wind into the countryside for 35 minutes or so, and you shall find yourself in another dark backing to the great mirror of death: Brookwood Cemetery. This is the second-largest cemetery in Europe and the resting place of Dodi Al-Fayed, Idries Shah, John Singer Sargent, Zaha Hadid and Freddie Mercury, among others. The cemetery is so vast that often even the groundspeople don’t know who is where. The place, like death itself, is a metaphor for the vastness and mystery of things.
This author intends to travel down there en route to visiting his parents for Easter. I shall alight from the Waterloo-Alton train and, seeking a rural route to nearby Worplesdon, walk past the graves of Muslims of all sects, and Christians of all denominations. I shall pass the Orthodox Church and the splendid tomb of Lord Edward Clinton with its vast angel wing and pitiable Christ, and hope to encounter a certain peace. Here, the city, in all its striving and its will toward power, lapses and the fundamental takes its stead: The hegemony of pine-shade and heathland, the awesome fact of death, and the hope — somewhat less absurd in the country than in town — of the world eventually coming right somehow. It shall all have little or nothing to do with politics.
Graves, in their homogeneity, their shared griefs and hopes, usher us away from morbidity toward solemn sympathy: It is about as far from a news headline as one can get. One gravestone for Kemal, a 14-year-old boy, buried next to the station reads:
We are so proud and privileged to have had you in our lives. You had such special qualities which left an impact on all of us. You gave us love and laughter to the fullest measure. You’re a precious gem we’ll always treasure. Loved and missed by all the family. Special hugs and cuddles.
It is always beautifully adorned with flowers, and the kindly boy who looks out of the photograph seems a fit recipient for this heartfelt tribute. But it is also every mother’s tribute to her child — and every father’s too. Cemeteries end up showing us a scope of love far greater than what we are used to: They are mirrors held up to the universal ambition of resurrection and reconciliation.
The Meaning of Westminister
Terror attacks are also mirrors. They have no such intention of course. It is as if the world is always swerving the evil intention and insisting again on some gigantic backing of love. We see this in the stories each time one of these catastrophes comes along. This time around there was the ageless spectacle of Tobias Elwood MP returning to the fray, though he had lost a brother in a terror attack in Bali, to attempt mouth-to-mouth on the fallen PC Keith Palmer. And even the grief of the nearest and dearest of those who died in this attack has the possibility of turning to love, a love like that on Kemal’s grave. Of course, it might turn to other things if we let it — to hatred and the desire for revenge. But I think each terrorist attack is really notable for the gigantism of its failure. The attacks are aberrations: The terrorist is essentially adolescent, afflicted with the unappeasable self.
We too should take refuge in that which, as Dante said, moves the sun and the other stars. We should not give way to panic or fear, or let the terrorist interfere with the inviolable projects of humankind: of love, the pursuit of happiness and knowledge, and the construction of peace. Death is less interesting than life, which is why most of us long simply to go on living, until our little lights go out. That is what the dark backing of the mirror shows.
*Image: A Jack the Ripper mural in London. Flickr/Veronica Olivotto.