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The Westminster Attack: A Considered Response

John Louth
Commentary, 31 March 2017
UK, Domestic Security, Terrorism, Europe
It is a week since Khalid Masood ploughed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing three people, before fatally stabbing PC Keith Palmer just inside the Parliamentary Estate. London has seen it all before.

RUSI is located in the heart of Whitehall and a number of its directors and researchers, this one included, spend a number of hours each week in the Palace of Westminster engaging with, and advising, ministers, MPs and peers.

We frequently walk across Westminster Bridge ­– where thousands of Londoners and tourists gathered on Wednesday to remember Khalid Masood’s four victims – and know many of the officials, security personnel, police officers and journalists who work in the area.

An attack on Parliament and the surrounding area, therefore, feels more personal than other events we observe and analyse.

Away from emotive and shouty headlines, calmer voices should be heard. First, Khalid Masood – born in Dartford, Kent, as Adrian Elms – was, the police said, acting alone, despite the fact that Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) claimed responsibility.

Second, in the immediate aftermath and confusion of these frightening events, a large number of people ran, deliberately, towards danger. It is a matter of record that Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, who is the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the Middle East, Africa and Counter Terrorism, tried to administer immediate and responsive first aid and other MPs were witnessed assisting the injured and shocked on Westminster Bridge.

Nurses and doctors from nearby St Thomas’ Hospital ran to the bridge knowing full well that an act of brutality had occurred and the perpetrator or team of assailants could still be at large.

These women and men responded before the police and security services had secured the scene; individual acts of bravery and selflessness that stand in marked contrast to the contemptible actions of the man who initiated these events.

Despite acting alone, Masood, during his criminally violent life, apparently became an adherent of Islamic extremism. Followers value the notion of the strong man, united with other strong men in an ideology that champions a single leader who can interpret the world for his followers.

These people value violence in purging the world of those who don’t believe as they do: Western democrats, women, LGBT people and those who pray in places not approved of by these strong men are for the gallows, enslavement as breeding machines, high-rise buildings or the sword.

Lastly, despite being this strong man, his violence is perpetrated typically on the unarmed, unprepared or the weak. We have been here before as has London. The characteristics, beliefs and values of this strong man, as listed above, are those we saw in the years before the Second World War, with the fascists in Italy and the Nazis in Germany.

Weak men dream of being strong and the certainties associated with fascism and supposed Islamist terrorism will always have a pull on those who think in black and white and plot in the shadows. It is the same phenomenon.

So a supremacist with a soldier fantasy acted out his sick play for like-minded strong men to savour. Not an act of war, but an act of petulance by a child-man with a speeding car for a battering ram and a knife. The innocent suffer and our hearts go out to the injured and bereaved.

As for London, it responded as it always does; with bravery, stoicism and with our people running towards the danger. Could it ever be otherwise? 

Banner image: The gates of the Houses of Parliament at New Palace Yard, near where PC Keith Palmer was fatally stabbed to death by Khalid Masood. Courtesy of RickyPi05/Wikimedia. 

Author

John Louth
Director, Defence, Industries and Society

Professor John Louth is Senior Research Fellow and Director for Defence, Industries and Society at RUSI. 

He served as an officer... read more

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