Today’s attack on Westminster Bridge and the Palace of Westminster, home of the British Parliament, have shaken many Londoners and brought a temporary halt to business inside the House of Commons.
Throughout today I was involved with meetings inside the landmark Institute of Directors in Pall Mall. This is less than two miles from the heart of Westminster.
Just an hour after the attacks, many people in our building were, predictably, either consulting smartphones or crowding around TV screens. Outside, other people trod the pavements as normal, many perhaps oblivious to the tragedy occurring just a relatively short distance away.
Sirens were blaring in the distance but, this being London, while the intensity of the noise may have been higher than usual, people paid it little heed. At the scene of the attacks, of course, things were vastly different.
At the time of writing, four people are known to have died in the attack, with more than 20 others injured, some of them seriously. Police have spoken of this as a “terrorist incident”.
A high-level police investigation was launched almost immediately and it seems that a sole man, armed with a car and a knife, was responsible for the attack.
Most of the wounded were reportedly injured on Westminster Bridge as the attacker drove a car onto the busy pavement. Eyewitness accounts say that he then crashed into a barrier outside Parliament and attempted to access the palace on foot.
It was at this point, apparently, that a brave police officer confronted the would-be invader and was stabbed. His job had been to protect Parliament; he did so gallantly, even in the face of a mortal threat. The attacker was then shot by police.
We owe much to our police services and security forces who do so much to protect us from threats seen and, more often, unseen by us. (Though concerns for personal privacy are important, perhaps we should be less paranoid about whether GCHQ is spying on us via our smart TVs. Why would they bother when there are real lunatics to be identified and disarmed?)
In the face of the type of raw aggression on show today, one thing remains clear. Terrorism will not bring cities like London to their knees, nor will it produce the lasting change its advocates seek – for a very good reason. There is neither hope nor respect in terrorism.
As a Jew, psychotherapist Victor Frankl endured the horror of German POW camps during World War 2. His keen observation of his fellow inmates led him to believe that many of those who survived the horror of the camps did so only because they held onto a dream of a better life after the war.
His final conclusion was that human beings can endure a great deal of pain, as long as there is a purpose in or beyond the pain.
Human beings will never be satisfied with a new status quo won through violence and suppression. They will always look beyond it for a new day born out of hope.
In the midst of the suffering around them, several by-standers put aside their own fears to offer assistance and succour to the injured on Westminster Bridge today. They will be remembered with fondness by peace-loving people wherever today's story is told. They are promoters of hope.
Terrorists offer no hope for the future, only a blinkered vision of the past and a brutally incoherent understanding of the present.
Ask most people what dominant trait marks out terrorists from the rest of us and many will answer, intolerance. Yet the terrorists’ fundamental failure lies deeper than this, in their seeming inability or refusal to acknowledge the human hunger for respect.
Much is said about tolerance these days, yet it is inferior to respect. Tolerance often assumes a downward-looking posture. ‘Look at you,’ it says, ‘with all your strange beliefs and even stranger behaviour. It’s a good thing that I’m as tolerant as I am or we’d never co-exist.’
Respect, by contrast, assumes a level stance or even an upward-focused outlook. ‘I disagree with you on some things,’ it declares. ‘At times, we disagree vehemently. Yet I recognise your inherent value as a human being and I acknowledge that there is likely much I can learn from you.’
Through the ages, this has been the fundamental difference between two of the biggest change-agents across civilisations – violent conquerors and servant-minded missionaries.
The former have sought to quench identity and bring change through a strategy of alienation-for-integration. Separate people from all that they hold dear, their thinking goes, and their identity can be re-engineered, their worldview re-programmed.
Throughout history, however, true missionaries – as opposed to opportunistic colonialists – have tried to bring constructive change through persuasive advocacy and by modelling a more beneficial way forward.
They have recognised that a human conscience is sacrosanct; that it may be wooed, persuaded and challenged but it should not be bullied.
When a former-slave-turned-churchman by the name of Patricius left Romanised England to serve the people of Ireland, he encountered there a fierce, warrior-like culture. Change came through violence and the threat thereof. Alpha males wore the shrunken heads of their enemies in their belts as a status symbol.
Within little more than a generation, Patricius and his monks had seen the culture largely transformed, to the point where men wore small scrolls in their belts to signify their newly acquired literacy skills.
Later, during the invasions of Europe by the barbarians, it was the disciples of St Patrick (as we know him) who helped to rescue and preserve the foundational works of western literature.
Ireland’s change was not the result of conquest or acts of terror. It was brought about by the promotion of education and trade, on the basis of hope for a better life and basic respect of the other.
Terrorists seek to convert by breeding insecurity, but human beings are inherently wired to seek and feed off hope and to seek and show respect.
Terrorists, acting alone or in groups, may try to sow insecurity. At times they will succeed, in measure. But they will not produce the large-scale change for which they yearn.
Their ultimate failure will not be a result of iron-clad security measures. As our police officials have reminded us again today, there is no such thing as perfect security.
Their plans will be frustrated because hope and respect are more life-affirming than horror and disrespect.