Gathering Up Spilt Waters

Writing condolence letters is difficult – how can you get across in words the feelings of loss and sympathy which often seem a little too big for the sheet of writing-paper? The Emperor Susenyos of Abyssinia didn’t do badly, writing of the death of the Jesuit Father Pedro Paez: ‘Were this paper to be the size of the heavens, and this ink the sea, we think they would not suffice to write down the fame of his goodness … it is just as impossible to recount all that he did, as it is to gather flowers now dead, or for today to return to yesterday and for spilt waters to be gathered up.” We may all feel something like that, but it isn’t easy to write it: on the whole, ours is a less eloquent, more buttoned-up age.

How much more difficult to say anything useful in the aftermath of a terrorist attack like that last week in Westminster. I walked the next morning from Church House where my bus summarily stopped, across the end of Victoria Street, and up a channel of police ribbons to the Horseguards. The streets – Victoria Street, Birdcage Walk, Whitehall, the Mall – were empty but for the bright yellow policemen everywhere. It was quiet and rather solemn, the glimpses we had of the bridge and of Parliament Square were still and melancholy. It was a terrible thing that happened there, and words are not easy to master in a way that is appropriately ample and at the same time suitably modest.

It worries me that politicians and journalists fall so easily into the trope of war, of victory and defeat, adopting almost Churchillian tones. “The terrorists will not defeat us: we will defeat them,” as one senior member of the government put it yesterday. This is a category error, suggesting that the fight against small-time ultra-violent criminality has the characteristics of war. But it isn’t so. War, despite the embarrassment of the GWOT, is about interstate conflict. This isn’t war, and it isn’t an existential struggle. Who wants us to think that it is? Well, Daech does – immediately claiming responsibility and describing Khalid Masood, the attacker, as “a soldier of the Islamic State,” so it looks as though they want to frame the atrocity in this way. And if Daech wants it, we probably shouldn’t.

The Islamic State is imploding. In a few weeks or months it will be gone and the deranged junior cleric with caliphal pretensions who runs it will be dead. So it desperately needs distraction – needs to give the impression that it can project its power across the world, into its enemies’ heartlands. It can’t. The Security Services have been remarkably successful in shutting off the big plots, the spectacular hits which the publicity-hungry Daechis crave; and what’s left is a middle-aged ELT teacher and classroom assistant with an unsavoury record of personal violence and a prison history which probably tells us where he was converted, and perhaps recruited too. This bald, bearded, body-building failure with a penchant for carrying knives, a soldier? In the immortal words of Roger Rabbit, “Puh-leeze.”

This is not to say that the threat is going to go away anytime soon: as Sadiq Khan said, quite rightly (despite young Master Trump’s jeering tweets), the threat of terror is a part of living in a great city. But while that terror remains a matter of inadequates with knives and four-by-fours, let’s not call it war. It is gross, armed criminality and needs to be treated as such: talk of war does the terrorists’ job for them. Masood was shot just as anyone in the course of a murderous rampage might be shot – by police; he was not killed by soldiers, and he certainly wasn’t a soldier himself.

For now, let’s not play the game of the rogue-enclave at Raqqah. Al-Baghdadi no more ordered this than he ordered the death of the unfortunate giraffes at Barrow-in-Furness zoo. He claimed credit, and we rose like fish to the bait. “Sad,” as a certain person might say.

Now, it is time to gather up the spilt waters.

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