(This article originally appeared on www.macleans.ca on June 4, 2017)
When London’s Borough Market is in full swing, there is no better place in the city to stock up on fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, cheese, and sweets. Visitors and regulars alike spend hours wandering its tangle of Victorian-era stalls.
At night, the same area is teeming with the painfully hip drinking and dining in some of London’s best bars and restaurants. Tucked in along the south bank of the River Thames, the location is a favourite for revellers because of its stellar transport links; the market is opposite London Bridge station, with its connections to all corners of this massive city.
So when three knife-wielding terrorists driving a white van struck London Bridge and Borough Market last night, they had a broad canvas on which to paint their brutal terror.
Despite police and emergency services responding a mere eight minutes after the first report of trouble, the attackers were able to plow their vehicle into pedestrians on London Bridge before exiting near the market to stab passersby at random, killing seven and injuring dozens more, many seriously. Fortunately police were able to kill the three attackers, who police later said were wearing fake suicide vests.
Britain’s leaders were quick to signal that Britons would not be cowed by the attack, which comes a short five days before citizens go to the polls to pick their next government. Despite these assurances, the parties went ahead and announced a suspension of their election campaigns.
If Saturday night’s cycle of events felt eerily familiar, it’s because random attacks of terror are becoming routine for Britain.
In late March, a 52-year-old British Muslim convert, Khalid Masood, drove across Westminster Bridge in a rental van, swerving into pedestrians and killing four, before continuing on foot onto the grounds of the Palace of Westminster to kill Keith Palmer, a policeman tasked with protecting Britain’s Parliament.
Two months later, 22-year-old British Muslim Salman Abedi detonated himself outside the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena, killing 22 and wounding scores more. The callous and deadly attack pushed the U.K.’s terror-warning threat level to “severe”—indicating other attacks were imminent—before it dropped late last week down to “critical”.
Then came last night’s strike. So much for the perfect warning system. That it didn’t detect three collaborators plotting together will be worrisome to officials.
Nevertheless, the mood, for now, remains calm; Britons are stoic by nature and have considerable experience with terror. The “troubles” of Northern Ireland plagued these shores in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, before Islamic radicals struck the transport system in 2005 and killed fusilier Lee Rigby on a London street in 2013.
It’s the random nature and increasing frequency of this latest series of attacks—coupled with their relatively modest means—that has set Britain on edge.
The Houses of Parliament. Teeny boppers at a pop concert. Londoners out on the tiles. It’s a fool’s errand to predict the location of the next attack, even if there is a ghoulish certainty that another is coming. The police simply don’t have the resources to track every man, van and knife to prevent them.
Expect, however, for some to call for far more stringent measures in the wake of London Bridge. The Manchester bombing had one popular right-wing commentator calling for a “final solution” to Islamic terror. She was subsequently fired for her trouble. Another wondered if internment of Muslims on the current anti-terror watch list wasn’t possible. More moderate souls will be wondering if there isn’t more to be done if this latest attack is, as expected, the work of Islamic terrorists.
But short of telling everyone to remain at home and avoid public places, there is no surefire plan to prevent more death. U.K. residents have no choice but to continue to place their faith in the police and intelligence services.
Britain certainly carried on Sunday morning, with Theresa May meeting with ministers and officials to discuss the attack and to receive updates on ongoing anti-terror efforts. She emerged railing against Islamist ideology and pledging to crack down on terrorist “safe spaces,” whether online or in the real world. She also announced the election would continue on as scheduled for June 8.
It’s not clear how the latest attack will impact each party’s electoral prospects. Given their perceived advantage on combatting Islamic terror, a poll boost was expected for the Conservatives following the Manchester attack. The opposite materialized, albeit for reasons other than terrorism policy.
Heading into the final weekend of the campaign, it was Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn—a man with a history of coddling terrorists and dictators—who had whittled down Theresa May’s lead to as little as one point, according to one survey. Others had the Conservatives more comfortably ahead. It will be up to Tory strategists to decide whether—and how hard—to press for advantage in the wake of yet another tragedy.
It’s likely Conservatives will stick with the approach of more of the same, albeit with more vigour and harsher rhetoric. But there’s a limit to exploiting the attack. If pressed, May knows these attacks have happened under her watch and that she doesn’t have any ready answers on how to prevent them.
As the former head of Britain’s Home Office, May knows her country’s existing anti-terror initiatives—such as the flagship Prevent program—assume a long, slow road to radicalization with clear signals from those aiming to matriculate to terror. The reality, thanks to the internet, is now different, and the supply of susceptible material much greater, given the willingness with which many muslim Britons have embraced the civil wars in Syria and Libya. With Mosul falling and Raqqa under threat, more will surely be coming home to roost.
May’s early comments in response to the London Bridge attack signal that she will attempt to pin some of the blame on the internet companies who allow terrorists to congregate online and propagate their messages of hate. More clearly needs to be done online, and whoever wins Thursday’s election will have the issue at the top of their inbox, right next to Brexit. The recent pace of attacks demands it.
Until new policies are drafted and implemented, Britain’s anti-terror forces will have to continue earning their reputation as the most effective in the world.
And U.K. citizens will have to visit markets, attend plays and concerts, and gather for sporting events with one eye on their surroundings, wondering whether the van approaching or the bloke with a backpack is the author of the nation’s next tragedy.