Sickening, brutal, barbaric. Such are the terms in which the attack that left a serving soldier lying dead in the street has been described. All are true, and all are yet still inadequate to express either the appalling savagery itself or the shock of its occurrence in an ordinary corner of south London. Not since the 7/7 bombings on the capital’s public transport network in 2005 – in which 52 innocent people lost their lives – has the brute reality of extremist hatred been so horrifically brought home.
With the two assailants in hospital, the questions now start – and they are legion. The most telling is whether the men were acting alone or were part of a terrorist “cell” supported by others, either here or abroad. But there will also be issues for the security services to address. Although sources suggest that the perpetrators were known to the authorities – and only the ongoing criminal investigations prevent the Government from explicitly saying so – it is not yet clear whether they should have been under closer surveillance. The more far-reaching questions are not for the police or the security services, however. They are for the rest of us.
The ranting of one, blood-drenched attacker – filmed by a passer-by – is a masterclass in extremist absurdity, an attempt to justify the unjustifiable with recourse to a “we” that does not exist. There is a lesson here, though. Not in politics. Nor even, sad to say, in how to prevent such fanaticism from taking hold. But rather in how society can hold out against the threat of limitless violence perpetrated at random and with cold unconcern for the consequences. And the lesson is that only by refusing either to compromise our values or to give in to the attempts to sow division can we deny the fundamentalists their victory.
Thus, the Prime Minister stressed that the revulsion is shared by every community in the land. Similarly, Islamic leaders across the country – and, indeed, many ordinary Muslims, too – were quick not only to condemn the attack but also to disavow any religious legitimisation for it.
Not all have been so sensible. Within hours of the incident there were nationalist protests and even attacks on mosques. More concerning still, the British National Party is proposing to hold a rally in Woolwich tomorrow. It is, perhaps, predictable that the far right might choose to use the activities of the unconscionable few to condemn the moderate many. But it is no less dismaying for all that. The calls for the Home Secretary to ban the gathering must be resisted, nonetheless.
While the prospect of even a handful of ultra-nationalists making such grisly hay is a depressing one, they must – providing that the law is not broken – be free to do so. To clamp down would not only fuel the ire of the far right. It would sacrifice basic democratic freedoms and give in to the bullying of terrorist violence.
The same principle applies elsewhere, too. Amid the questions about the effectiveness of MI5, support was growing yesterday for a revival of Theresa May’s “snooper’s charter”, which would give the authorities much greater powers to monitor citizens’ internet usage. Such a move would be indefensible. What was intrusive before remains so now.
Wednesday’s attack cannot be anything but a cause for great sadness and some considerable alarm. But we cannot allow it to leave Britain either more divided or less tolerant. As the actions of many of the witnesses at the grisly scene attest, the majority of ordinary people – of whatever faith or background – exhibit, unprompted, extraordinary bravery and humanity. As the horrors in Woolwich sink in, it is that which must remain uppermost in our minds.