Nothing shocks like events that seem to recast our world. Therein lies the great power of terrorism. Last Wednesday brought this to my mind in a way that hadn't happened before. It's not the first time London has suffered from terrorism, and it won't be the last. It's a chilling thought as long as we continue to find terrorism chilling, and it's also an accurate assessment. More than anything though, the reactions afterwards, mine and others, struck me. There was nothing new in the general response, and yet I wonder if I was seeing things differently, and if that is wrong.
Familiarity might be the reason. I've watched on as news has broken in the past and I've felt things other people feel, but the location and time stood one step removed. That's not to say I have no empathy. It's more that it's rooted in general humanity rather than personal experience.
On Wednesday I was watching something unfold in an area I know intimately. I used to work there, crossing the bridge twice a day several times a week. I navigated around groups of people strolling along much as the unfortunate victims were on Wednesday. I passed through entrances to the Parliamentary estate daily and said hello to the officers guarding them. It all meant I could envisage it in a more direct way than usual.
This came coupled with the mundanity of the methods used. I've been around cars and knives all my life, as has everyone in the country. I know them as familiar and predominantly benign instruments like I (hope I) never will with explosives and guns.
It's the way these ordinary items are misused that defies my comprehension. If four people die and dozens are injured in a traffic accident, it's a tragedy, but not one beyond our realm of understanding. We know cars and roads, and we're familiar with crashes. Sometimes people even stab each other. In isolation it's awful but not shocking outside our frames of reference. Deliberately driving a car across a bridge to kill as many people as possible before crashing, charging to an entrance, and brutally killing an innocent police officer is an entirely different world. It's a disproportional act designed to terrify proportional minds.
That my proportional mind struggles to process it is probably a good thing. The day we stop finding such behaviour beyond comprehension is the day we no longer have values worth defending. There's a certain jaded resignation from repeated attacks, but that gut horror never goes away. It doesn't make responding any easier and there's ultimately no right way to do so, though there evidently are some wrong ones.
After the initial shock faded, I found myself wondering if I felt this incident more intensely because I knew the place, and I knew people working in the building. I also couldn't help but wonder if this was a good or bad thing. Did I give more importance to an event that felt like it touched me personally and does that mean I've not cared enough in all the other instances where I couldn't place myself at the scene? The honest answer is I have absolutely no idea. I can barely disentangle my reaction, never mind assess it with any real degree of rationality.
And then I'm left wondering is there a right and wrong way to react when the unexpected becomes reality in the most horrific manner? To the latter there definitely is. You can be Donald Trump Jr. proving a gaping absence of human decency runs in the family by dashing out petty and inaccurate point scoring tweets. You can cynically grasp at the opportunity to bury bad news as the classic special adviser gaffe has it. You can even turn on others, attacking the way in which they express their grief. That's not what most people do, despite a number engaging in pointless arguments with others, demanding appropriate displays of sorrow and anger.
Instead, take to social media and there's grief and sadness seeping through every post in the immediate aftermath. People express solidarity and drape themselves in comforting symbolism. The Union Jack edges into images. Condolences come from all angles, and unexpected joy breaks through when friends and family confirm loved ones are safe. People want to talk about every detail; they want to connect.
They also want to condemn and rage against the cold fury engulfing a stable world. The anger is righteous and indignant. The loss of life and the attack on values - not always clearly defined ones - inspire vitriol. Some people drag religion in, or whatever else it is they've been railing against for years, seeing confirmation they were right all along. It can be unpleasant but it's hard to moderate in the heat of the moment. Others post clunky expressions of defiance that would be laughed at in a Hollywood blockbuster, yet feel like the right words at the time.
Anger isn't my go to reaction but should it be? I feel sadness when these things happen, and I worry where it might take us afterwards. I fear kneejerk reactions that might endanger hard to explain values we all profess to hold. Should I instead fear more of these attacks? Should I demand retribution rather than silently praying for calm? The only thing I do know is to watch people falling into arguments over the way others have reacted is--criticism of manipulative Nigel Farage's of this world apart--foolish. Outside individuals exploiting events for selfish ends, it's hard to control how we feel when something shocking occurs. And that's the way it should be. There is no correct reaction, only human responses. We're all in trouble if we stop having those.