An Heroic Response to Terrorism

In the light of the attack on Westminster on Wednesday 22nd March, it was perhaps inevitable that the term 'hero' would become part of the emerging narrative. Khalid Masood's  assault on the heart of British democracy has left 5 dead and 50 injured, some of whom are still in a critical condition.

PC Keith Palmer was unarmed and on duty when he was fatally stabbed by Masood, who had already left a trail of destruction on Westminster bridge, having ploughed through pedestrians before crashing and abandoning his vehicle. He would no doubt have entered Parliament and taken more lives, had he not been shot by a close protection officer, believed to be assigned to Defence Secretary Michale Fallon.

As Masood and PC Palmer lay dying a few paces from one another, Tobias Ellwood, Foreign Minister for the Middle East and Africa, tried desperately to resuscitate the Police Officer and Paramedics, arriving on the scene soon afterwards, did their best to save the terrorist, but in both cases, they were unsuccessful.

The entire attack lasted just 82 seconds. In less than a minute and a half, each of those people, whose fates were to become inextricably bound together, were tested, weighed and measured by their response to an act of terror. It might seem too soon, too raw to be talking about these events, but inevitably the headlines are full of venom, outrage, and attempts to attribute blame, while heralding the sacrifices made. As our nation tries to make sense of the attack, and to chart our way forwards now, I have decided to add my voice because I think the term 'hero' can so easily become appropriated as a means of polarising and simplifying what is a tragically complex issue.

Prime Minister, Teresa May has recently commented that  "The greatest response lies not in the words of politicians, but in the everyday actions of ordinary people". She, and many in the media have pointed to the 'Dunkirk Spirit' which is so often the national response to acts which threaten our way of life in modern Britain. I happened to be in London on 7th July 2005 when our capital suffered multiple bombings, and remember a similar quintessentially British response then. The murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in 2013 is yet another case in point. 

Each time we are exposed to 'terror' we tend to rally around, looking past the superficial boundaries that otherwise set us apart from one another, and stand united amid the rubble and grief. Candlelit vigils, tributes of flowers and football teams and stadiums standing in silent witness, all speak of a nation who will not be cowed by a small minority of extremists, bent on destroying our way of life. I am proud, at such times, to be British.

The Prime Minister, commenting on Palmer's sacrifice, stated that "He was every inch a hero and his actions will never be forgotten." In other articles and news reports, Fallon, the paramedics and other first responders have been called heroes too. Meanwhile, the press has labelled Masood a 'monster', a 'beast' and a 'ruthless killer'. While the last of these labels is incontestable, we must be careful in dismissing terrorists like Masood so quickly as 'other'.

Unpalatable as it is to acknowledge, monsters do not emerge fully formed into this world; they are birthed and shaped in conditions that so warp their hearts and minds, that murder and fear become, for them, a rationale and even an 'heroic' act of sacrifice in the name of their cause. Terrorists are born out of a quagmire of failure. Failure to nurture, failure to show compassion and understanding, failure to afford agency and hope.

It is absolutely right that we should take up arms and stand opposed to those who would wield terror as a means of furthering their own agenda, but it might be prudent too to ask about the origin story of our nemesis. If we can direct our efforts towards alleviating the suffering of others at source, to hold ourselves and our governments accountable for their actions in our name, and find opportunities to hear the grievances of the dispossessed and the desperate, perhaps we would need fewer heroes and lose fewer good people along the way?

Tales of heroes so often require a monster against which they are seen to do battle. Dragon slayers need a dragon or they are simply knights, in search of a mission. The trouble with such narratives, is that they are binary. If we have learned anything in our postmodern landscape, it is that life is rarely so black and white. So, we should of course mourn and hold up those who gave of themselves for others; they are heroes by any measure, but that is not the end of the story.

Everywhere these days, I see t-shirts, mugs and posters modelled on the most British of sentiments: 'Keep calm and carry on'. This is sound advice, nullifying as it does, the panic and fear that terrorism seeks to instil. But let's also honour those who have sacrificed themselves, by asking the difficult questions too, so that we might snuff out the source of terror, and not just its violent offspring. 

Andy Fisher