Twenty-four hours after the brutal attacks on London Bridge and nearby Borough Market, the death toll has risen to seven. It will rise further. There are 35 people in hospital, at least 15 of them said to be in a critical condition. Most likely the final toll will be about a dozen. The attack happened about 10pm, starting on the unremarkable bridge that leads from the city, the financial district — St Paul’s Cathedral and the Bank of England are in direct line with it – to the restaurant and bar strip around the south side of the bridge, and the old Borough market. Ten years ago, the market was a down-at-heel produce market; now it’s a popular spot for people who don’t want to go into the city.
Target-rich environment for the three attackers who killed and injured a number of people with a truck, weaving on and off the footpath. They then jumped out, and ran down to the market, stabbing people as they went with long 12-inch bladed knives. Running into the market, they went in and out of bars and pubs — those that weren’t quickly barricaded — stabbing at random, and running on. Eight minutes into the attack, they were shot down by armed officers, who put 50 bullets into them. They were wearing what appeared to be suicide vests; these turned out to be dummies.
The gap between the number of victims killed outright and those injured indicates the rough and improvised nature of the attack. The three killers stabbed and moved on, aiming to create as much mayhem as possible.
Twelve hours later, on Sunday morning, a dozen people were arrested in Barking, a suburb of outer-east London, which has both a large Muslim population and was, for a few years, also a focus of the fascist British National Party. But the names of the three attackers have not yet been released.
The eight minutes of carnage that followed the attackers leaving the truck are ghastly in the telling. A number of people fought back, throwing glasses and furniture at them; a taxi driver tried to knock them over. The news was later full of stories of people attending fast to the wounded, offering help through the night, etc, etc. However, there’s no doubt that the attack — its duration, its viscerality — will resonate.
Eighteen hours after the attack, the politicking began — even though all parties had once again announced that they were suspending election campaigning. It was announced that the general election on Thursday would go ahead, something one didn’t think needed saying (in 1945, the UK was still at war with Japan when the election took place). Prime Minister Theresa May made a statement saying that “enough was enough” in terms of Muslim extremism. Since the Conservatives have been in power for seven years, and Theresa May was home secretary for six years of that, and Prime Minister for one, that seems a bit outrageous. The mayor of London, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, made a statement saying that there would be more police on the streets in the next weeks, and that this should be no cause for panic. The last part of this was taken out of context and tweeted by the ever-helpful US President Donald Trump.
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On Sunday afternoon, Jeremy Corbyn made a speech that broke the electoral “truce”, which the government might have been hoping would last a while longer — so they could de facto campaign by making statements on getting tough on radical Islam. He noted that the Tories had cut 20,000 police places, that police had warned that this would raise the risk, talked about people coming together as a community, linked the NHS response to the tragedy, to the health of the NHS in general.
On Sunday night, there was the Ariana Grande et al concert in Manchester, in honour of the victims of the last bombing. That set off a fresh round of celebration of people coming together, etc, etc.
That is all necessary perhaps. Or at least, unavoidable. So, too, was right-wing junk and breast-beating in the UK, US and Australia. Vague talk of getting tough on radical Islam is just air. Notions of putting the army on the streets doesn’t respond to the core nature of the threat; and talk of holding people without trial, internments, etc, would simply create the conditions in which more young men were persuaded across to violent Islamism, or trained in the arts of terror once they were there.
By Sunday evening, one very important piece of information had emerged: that one of the terrorists had been thrown out of a mosque in Barking for making incendiary statements during prayers, that he had been reported to the authorities by multiple people, but that no follow-up was made. Should that prove true, then that would suggest that the occurrence of a second terrorist attack has nothing to do with a lack of guns on the street, or waffle in the press: it is another example of systems already in place not being employed properly. Indeed, it may be an example of information overload combined with understaffing.
How this unfolds in the last week of the campaign will depend on how Labour handles the politics of it.
They certainly have the opening to go in hard on a double-whammy political attack: that the Tories have cut police numbers on the street, at the same time as they have sponsored a decade of bombing in the Middle East. How hard they would be willing to go in on that is a tricky question, to say the least. But it is a reasonable criticism, and a chance to get Tory nihilism, all in one frame.
Of course, the last week of the campaign may turn on something else: another attack. Your correspondent is far from London at the moment. The protestation that a person, a city, a country is not changed by such attacks is nonsense. You don’t get to choose if things change or not; that’s what change is. You get some say in how you’re changed, and that, in London, is what is yet to be seen.