The pain now being experienced by each person who loved or cared about one of the four innocent people who were murdered on Wednesday is something few of us can even bear to imagine. Processing the senselessness of those deaths will be a long and complex journey. We can only hope that the public expression of solidarity with them helps in some small way to ease this terrible burden.
For all the focus on Parliament and the assault on our democracy, it must not be forgotten that it was ordinary people visiting, enjoying and living in London who bore the brunt of this attack. And while the attacker was able briefly to penetrate the parliamentary estate, PC Palmer gave his own life in a way that mercifully ensured that the bloodshed was not greater. His heart-breaking sacrifice is a tribute to the sense of duty and service that binds our nation together.
The attacker’s impact, in contrast, is pitiful. There has naturally been enormous media interest in this assault, but that should not be taken by his ideological backers as any sort of triumph.
This has been the second high profile attack that my central London constituency has withstood from terrorists since I have been its MP. But 12 long years separate these incidents. In light of the complex, detailed and difficult work undertaken each day to prevent such outrages, I see those 12 years as a remarkable achievement and testament to the work of our police, security services and policymakers.
It is also a mark of the level-headedness of Londoners. For all the talk of isolated and divided communities, for all the panic about radicalisation, this most dynamic, diverse and cosmopolitan of cities – now over 8m strong – remains remarkably harmonious. Terrorism preys on communities that practice openness and tolerance. Indeed it is these beliefs rather than our ethnic origins, race or religion which makes us what we are, and which threaten radicals who understand that their rigid, simplistic world view is undermined by such principles.
One is rightly nervous about tempting fate on this subject. There is never cause to be complacent, of course. Yet nor should we be alarmist. The truth is that this latest attack was blunt and clumsy rather than sophisticated. As such, it is notable how few calls there have been for a marked change of policy in the aftermath of Wednesday’s events.
During the five years of the last Parliament, I sat on the Intelligence and Security Committee, scrutinising the work of our security services. We have come a long way in our expertise since the 7 July attacks. We have learned to be fluid, changing our approach as the terrorists change theirs. We have become more sophisticated at profiling and targeting. Agencies and local government work much more effectively with one another.
While it is easy to feel vulnerable on the capital’s streets as a pedestrian, look a little closer and you will notice the work that has been done in recent years to the streetscape in order to mitigate the risk of car attacks and the like – narrowing junctions, tighter bends to make it harder to gain speed and so on. There are even systems in place in the TfL control rooms to change traffic flow and block particular vehicles. Our defence is now multidimensional.
The security services prefer to use the term “self-starter” to define what the media tend to label “lone wolf” attacks. Identifying which of the 3,000 people to put under full surveillance is one of their most difficult judgement calls, and becomes even harder when person-to-person contact is replaced with internet radicalisation. Insofar as there needs to be policy change after Wednesday, it is to ensure that we allow our security services to keep up to speed with the latest terror tactics and to learn whatever lessons come from the detailed profiling exercise which will now be taking place over Khalid Masood when it comes to the networks and internet sites with which he has come into contact.
We should not even entertain the idea that the actions of this murderer will have any broader impact on our powerful ideals of democracy, liberty and respect for human life. It goes without saying that his mark on the world, in inflicting only pain on others, is pathetically insignificant when contrasted to the dignity of those whose lives he stole.