Last night in London, bars and restaurants near Britain’s Parliament at Westminster were just as packed as ever. Walking to meet a friend just across across the river in Waterloo last night, I saw office workers spilling out of pubs and lined up as usual at bus stops; if you didn’t know better, it’d seem improbable that a terrorist attack had occurred hours before, just minutes’ walk away.
This was not, perhaps, the atmosphere that the attacker was dreaming of when he planned the horrific attack he carried out Wednesday afternoon. Three people were killed and 29 others sent to the hospital after Khalid Masood, a 52-year-old man from just outside London, drove a car into pedestrians and stabbed a police officer outside the U.K. Parliament before he was killed. The terrorist organization ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack.
It’s not just that Londoners are keeping calm and carrying on—that’s what they do in a crisis by default. It’s more that there’s little open acknowledgement in people’s behavior that this is a crisis at all. Going out into the streets, everything is so utterly normal that it’s almost disconcerting. Public transit has continued running without a hitch, shops stayed busy, and people seemed to be going on about their business without any apparent fear of peril.
There is a strain of relief in this show of strength. This in no way prevents it from being tragic, especially as the heartbreaking photos and profiles of the victims are emerging, smiling at us from some happy-looking place. But, in many ways, the attack could have been so much worse, and Londoners are taking comfort in the effectiveness of the city’s security measures. Thanks to swift, effective policing, the attacker never got into Parliament itself, only through its outermost cordon. And a far worse casualty toll could certainly have been possible. Indeed, the relative inability of the attacker to create the sort of carnage that terrorism thrives on has been seen by some experts as tentative confirmation that ISIS has failed to recruit many adherents in Britain.
11. But interviews with convicted ISIS fighters suggests that ISIS actually had trouble recruiting people to do attacks in UK.— Rukmini Callimachi (@rcallimachi) March 22, 2017
There’s something else behind the calm. After Paris, Brussels (exactly a year ago), Berlin, Istanbul, and other cities, terrorist attacks and their aftermath are something that Londoners and other city-dwellers have become grimly familiar with. Now shock in itself has become something we expect. There’s a grin-and-bear-it quality to many reactions, as well as a strange sort of meta-reaction where people are commenting on their own and others’ first reactions.
Many people on social media, for example, have been sharing this photo, apparently showing one of the signs commonly written up at the entrances of Tube stations
Almost as frequent, however, are posts pointing out that this is actually a fake created by a meme generator.
ok, so there will be a lot of tube signs with inspirational messages doing the rounds today, but remember... pic.twitter.com/UcO3DMoPvv— Elena Cresci (@elenacresci) March 23, 2017
This suggests people are feeling compelled both to draw together and show cheerful solidarity, but also to draw back from responses that package this feeling too neatly, to replace genuine if less pithy expressions of solidarity with their simulation.
That doesn’t mean Londoners don’t care, or aren’t sad. But we are familiar with terrorist mayhem in a way that many other Western cities aren’t. This is a place where, just between 1971 and 1997, there were more than 135 bombings, attempted bombings, and terrorist shootings planned by the I.R.A. In 2005, 56 people died after attacks by fanatical Islamist terrorists, while London’s neighboring capital cities, Paris and Brussels, have also experienced terrorist violence. You can’t just fall to pieces in the face of this sort of threat, surrender yourself to hatred, or let yourself get riled by inaccurate, trashy comments by an American president’s nitwit son.
Perhaps there’s something sad about this city’s skill and facility with managing threat and grief. It’s still the best thing Londoners can do right now.