Woolwich: The resilience of the British public is a strength not to be squandered

Our slowness to panic is a social virtue that can compensate for a host of deficiencies

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The Independent Online

Since Wednesday afternoon, Britain has a new hero. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a cub-scout leader in her forties, coolly asked two men who had just hacked a man to death on a south-east London street, why they did it, listened to their answers, told them they would not win, and politely suggested that they hand over  their weapons. She successfully held the fort for the almost 10 minutes that it took for the police to arrive.

Her response was at the extreme end of courage – the sort of thing we all wish we might do, confronted with an extreme situation. But one of the most striking aspects of the Woolwich murder was the calm and restraint of many others who found themselves, on a sunny May afternoon, sharing an ordinary urban thoroughfare with two cold-blooded killers.

In part, of course, this may simply reflect the merciful reality that such an attack is vanishingly rare, even in the least salubrious parts of our cities. Most Britons have never, and will never, witness a murder, and we have not developed the survival skills that those unfortunate enough to live in war zones acquire. Ordinary people do not know how to distinguish incoming from outgoing fire, because they do not need to know – and thank goodness for that.

Among those in Woolwich who told their stories to reporters or posted them on the social media, there was a strong strain of disbelief; a sense that what they had seen was more fiction than fact. It is possible that this is a common defence mechanism; equally, it demonstrates that violent death, seen up close, is not the stuff of normal life.

But incredulity does not explain why this extraordinary, outrageous event was greeted with such common sense and restraint. Even though the killers, their hands red with blood, hung around for the police to arrive, there was no panic. People did not flee in all directions; they seemed rather to have noted carefully what they had seen, should the details be needed later, and then gone home. The streets were quiet through the evening, except for an unruly protest assembled by the English Defence League.

By and large, the British public comes across as less emotional, less stridently vindictive and less prone to alarm than other Westerners might be in equivalent circumstances. Some of the reasons for this may be negative. Long experience of IRA terrorism in Mainland Britain, along with the screenings and safety checks that came with it – could offer part of an explanation, though these bomb attacks are no longer within many people’s living memory. Some will also cite the so-called Blitz spirit – although, again, for most people living in London today the Blitz is little more than a romanticised folk legend.

Still, it does seem to me that the British public and others who have chosen to live here have tended to respond to sudden violence in their midst with unfussy fortitude and a particular can-do practicality. These qualities were widely remarked upon by visitors and the foreign media after the London bombings of 7 July 2005. They featured prominently in testimony at the 7/7 inquest, and were commended many times with something approaching incredulity by the presiding judge, Lady Justice Hallett.

In 2007, the attempted bombing of Glasgow airport, and the car bomb that did not go off outside the Tiger Tiger nightclub in central London drew a similar response. At Glasgow, airport staff and passengers were reported to have joined forces with the police to capture the suspects. The airport was functioning normally within 24 hours. Tiger Tiger opened as usual the following night.

For the most part – the EDL showing itself a dishonourable exception – the public has also avoided stigmatising Islam in general. In 2007, as soon as it became clear that the would-be perpetrators were Muslims, the then prime minister Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair in 2005, went out of his way to draw a distinction between Muslims living in Britain and criminals. A heartening feature of the Woolwich attack was the way Muslims flocked to the social media to dissociate themselves from what had happened, without waiting for the nod from community leaders.

There is no reason to be complacent. The shooting, by police, of an innocent man, Jean Charles de Menezes, three weeks after the 7/7 bombings showed how far the emergency services and the public were still on edge, and signalled the enduring effects that a continued terrorist campaign might have. There will be limits to how far even phlegmatic Britons can keep their cool.

As it stands, however, the British public’s high degree of resilience in the face of extreme and untoward events constitutes a huge national asset that makes a government’s life considerably easier than it would otherwise be. The slowness to panic, the readiness of ordinary people to improvise and help each other, the capacity of a small area, in an emergency, to police itself, are social virtues that can compensate for a host of deficiencies in public services. (They are also why the retreat of the police from the streets during the 2011 riots was greeted with such fury. We had done our bit; why could they not do theirs?)

In recent times, no British government has had to cope with a breakdown of law and order following a violent or terrorist attack, at least not on the Mainland. But politicians must be careful not to squander this considerable advantage. There is a very fine line between calling for vigilance and spreading alarm. 

In a crisis, a government has to show that it is in charge and on the case, but how many meetings of the dramatically named Cobra need to be called? Does a prime minister have to return home immediately – this time from just across the Channel? Should Parliament be recalled? Of course, the security of army barracks had to be boosted following this week’s attack and precautions had to be taken against possible reprisals, but how many police needed to be on the streets? How many helicopters in the air?

There comes a point when the concern of politicians to look strong risks creating a climate of needless fear. The resilience of the British public is a precious quality for which many national governments would give a great deal. Our elected leaders must do nothing to weaken that spirit.