The political psychology of responding to a second terror attack within only a few days is necessarily different from responding to a first. When Theresa May spoke in the wake of the Manchester atrocity, she said, inter alia, that “I do not want the public to feel unduly alarmed”. She scarcely touched on the cause that inspired the massacre, Islamist extremism, either in the form of the violence that it drives or the ideology that it professes: indeed, she didn’t name it at all. She concentrated on explaining why the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre had raised the threat level from Serious to Critical, and why troops would be deployed on our streets in the form of Operation Temperer. Election campaigning was suspended for the best part of three days.
It would have been clear at once to the Prime Minister, as reports began to come on Saturday of the killings on London Bridge and at Borough Market, that she could not respond to it in the same way. It is doubtless true that one is more likely to be killed by a dog than a terrorist, as Jemima Khan tweeted yesterday, but it was not the moment for May to share that statistic with the public. What counts in political terms is not that most people are unlikely to be caught up in a mass terror attack, but that many believe that they and their families might be. And there is a more fundamental point. Such an assault is a heinous act in itself – regardless of one’s chances of being caught up in it. For a second to follow a first, after 12 years of none, is a life-costing breach of security.
Gone from the Prime Minister’s text, therefore, were soothing calls for calm. She recognised that it could not be business as usual, as this site put it only a few hours earlier. Islamist extremism was named. Campaigning was paused only briefly. “Things need to change, and they need to change in four important ways,” May said, before going on to say, first, that Islamist ideology must be defeated. Second, that it “cannot be allowed the safe space it needs to breed” (thus pointing a finger of blame at the social media giants). Third, that it must be “identified and stamped out”. And, fourth, that the counter-terror strategy will be reviewed to take account of the new terror trend that she described – low-tech murders with vehicles and knives, like Saturday night’s in London.
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