‘The banality of evil’ is the phrase that comes into my head after every serious terror attack. (Hannah Ahrendt’s famous aphorism is actually the sub-title of her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, her account of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi war criminal.)
The phrase has been trotted out so often that it is now more or less a cliché, but here we are again with yet another pointless act of urban terrorism, committed by yet another far from heroic perpetrator with pseudo-religious motives, leaving yet more unselected victims lying like bundles of rags, dead or injured, in an evacuated street.
The deed was as abject as the life of the man responsible for it.
He is, it turns out, one Khalid Masood, a man of mixed race who was born Adrian Elms in Dartford, Kent (hardly a place that comes to mind as a hotbed of radicalism, but who knows). Masood is said to have lived four years of his life as a teacher in Saudi Arabia, where he is thought to have been ‘radicalised’. He spent a similar number of years in British prisons, where more mental damage may have been inflicted by fellow inmates committed to the faith. A life of crime began with an early conviction (at nineteen) for criminal damage, and ended with a long jail-term for stabbing a man in the face.
Actually, it ended with Elms lying in a pool of his own blood on the cobbled forecourt of the Palace of Westminster, where he had been shot dead after stabbing an unarmed policeman. Minutes earlier, he had driven a rented car across Westminster Bridge for the purpose of mounting the pavement and mowing down as many pedestrians as possible. He had considerable success, hitting forty. Most were tourists, encompassing eleven nationalities. As of this writing, four have died, the rest are still lying in hospital beds.
The usual well-meaning platitudes and hand-wringing bromides that invariably follow such incidents will be delivered in parliament and the media for weeks to come. A candle-lit vigil has already been held in Trafalgar Square, the crowds linking hands to send out the message that “the merchants of terror will not win because we the people cannot be beaten”.
All very worthy and brave, of course, but one terrorist did win, and four innocent people are dead.
Clearly, more is required than demonstrations of public solidarity.
Social commentators will examine how more active a society should become to prevent young Muslims being radicalised, and reach few conclusions other than those which cannot be implemented because they are politically unacceptable.
The security services will review what lessons can be drawn from the event, presumably to go beyond the startlingly obvious conclusion that has already been reached in the present case – namely, that having an unarmed policeman guarding an unlocked and much-used gate is probably not the most effective way to keep prospective intruders out – or policemen safe.
Religious leaders will debate interminably how society can better integrate certain ethnic and religious minorities in order to create the nirvana of a true multi-cultural community of kindred spirits and all faiths. The priests will continue to ignore the fact that some of those ethnic and religious communities have shown a distinct lack of appetite for integration and would probably campaign against any attempt to make it happen
And then the hullabaloo will die down, until the next atrocity. We cannot know when it will happen, or where, but when it does we will again read a new account of some lost soul whose God has instructed him to rent a van, or a lorry, and use it to kill or maim as many people as possible, so ensuring himself a place next to Himself in paradise.
I suppose there must be answers – political, legal and social – to the host of questions raised by incidents of this kind. Just don’t ask me what the answers are. I’m not sure I even know the questions.
This blissful state of ignorance ought to induce feelings of intellectual inadequacy, except that nobody else has come up with any answers. My greater concern is that tub-thumping political opportunists, the kind who camouflage their bigotry with assertions of patriotism, will fill the space with solutions that appeal to the darker angels of our nature. That is why we of the liberal persuasion are required, and cravenly agree, to avoid saying what we would really like to say about the influences and pressures that religions (all religions, but Islam in particular) exert on vulnerable, impressionable people yearning for salvation.
That the religious leaders themselves ought to be speaking out against such methods goes without saying, but so does the fact that they are the last people likely to do so. When did we last hear a powerful leader in the Islamic world condemn atrocities committed in the name of the faith? (Are there powerful leaders in the Islamic world? Who actually is in charge here?)
Meanwhile, sadly, Britain and other western so-called societies will continue to churn out pathetic, gullible, malleable failures like Adrian Elms. Their resentments will fester in gloomy bed-sits in grimy urban streets, receptive to any crackpot evangelist who offers them a chance to make a mark. This will happen regardless of the appeals our leaders make to our better natures, and however effective the preventative measures introduced to ensure our safety.
Because every time we stroll along a busy London Street and we pass by, perhaps even smile at, or accidentally bump into, a shuffling figure in work-clothes, perhaps absently muttering inanities into his mobile phone, he might well be the next Adrian Elms.
He is not one of Them, he is one of Us.