The events on Westminster Bridge and in the grounds of Parliament that we witnessed on TV on Wednesday were indisputably shocking. We felt deeply sorry for the people who had been injured and full of pity for those who were killed and for the anguish that their families would now be suffering, but we were also full of admiration for the way the police, the ambulance crews, and ordinary men and women in the street took action at once and rushed to help the injured. Yes, we were aware that all this had probably been caused by one man in a frenzy of hatred but we were also witnessing scores of other people at their very best, skilled, compassionate, immediately helpful, calm and kindly.
But – and it’s a very big but- it was not a terrorist attack, despite what the pundits and some of the reporters were saying. It was one frenzied 52 year old man determined to kill and injure. A terrorist attack is a very different matter and a much more destructive one. A terrorist attack is the deliberate use of guns, high explosives and incendiary devices to destroy houses and kill hundreds and thousands of people in order to subdue them. It’s what we’re seeing in various places all over the world. And we’ve been seeing it for most of my lifetime. Although we didn’t call it a terrorist attack when I was a child, we called it Guernica when it happened in Spain, and the Blitz when it happened in London
I hope you’ll forgive me if I quote some figures at you but I think it will help you to see what I mean when I say that what we need now is a sense of proportion.
Between September 7th and November 14th 1940 London was bombed every night bar one by hundreds of German bombers. On that first night more than 400 people were killed and 1,600 seriously injured. After that the raids didn’t come every single night but they went on hideously steadily until May 10th 1941. By that time 28,556 Londoners had been killed, 25,578 had been seriously injured and more than a third of the houses had either been destroyed or were uninhabitable. But – and this is another big but – there were no reporters striding about in the ruins enjoying the vicarious drama, nobody panicked, people were remarkably and admirably calm. They joined the ARP, the Auxiliary Fire Brigade, the WVS, and thousands of them came out in the streets every time there was a raid, to fight the fires, which were formidable, to gather up the bodies and bits of bodies, to dig their neighbours out of the wreckage and comfort them through the shock they were in, to serve tea from temporary canteens, to find temporary shelter for the homeless, and all of it while the bombs were falling all around them and they knew they could be killed at any moment – as many of them were. There were thousands of them. J.B.Priestly called them the Citizen’s Army explaining that ‘this war, whether those in authority like it or no, has to be fought as a citizen’s war.’ The Lord Mayor declared that every single one of them should be given a medal. They had worked calmly through the longest terrorist attack in history.
So what is the point of my story? It is this. It isn’t reporters and pundits bigging up the event and talking wildly about it being a terrorist attack who are important. It’s time to ignore them. It’s the ordinary and admirable men and woman who immediately came out to help who have earned our attention. It’s our quiet citizen army. Respec’!