It’s been quite a few days since the Westminster Bridge attack. First reactions are always frenzied and overblown, as everyone, involved or not, casts around, seeking someone or something to blame. Just like almost everyone else, I saw the images – a dead man in the street – and jumped to the conclusion that this was the work of a crazed terrorist, fuelled by his twisted interpretation of Islamic propaganda and fully prepared to shed blood in the symbolic precincts of democratic liberty. But the speed with which I rushed to this judgement I found worrisome; how slickly I was prepared to join up the dots and fill in the blanks despite the fact that hard evidence was thin on the ground at the time. I was enraged by the Mayor of London’s glib, throwaway remark that big cities must come to expect this sort of thing, as if an act of terror, wanton and deliberate, was no more important than a shower of rain. Now, as the dust settles, a different and possibly more accurate perspective emerges as today, injured survivors joined the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at a memorial service in the Abbey. The service took place just meters away from the bridge where Khalid Masood mowed down pedestrians in his car before stabbing a police officer outside the Parliament building. I found the proximity comforting. When evil shakes his gory locks, the Church – not the mosque – finds ways of bringing healing and a sense of perspective. British Muslims were quick to politically distance themselves. They wrote: ‘An attack on our democracy, the police, people on our streets, is an attack on our nation, on all of us. We condemn this act, an attack not just on the capital but on the values that people across Britain hold dear. We pay tribute to the bravery and prompt reaction of police officers and the emergency services, whose work keeps us safe.” Soundly patriotic but by no means enough. A pre-existent narrative which someone of any faith could have delivered can never excuse the fact that the perpetrator, just like so many before him, used his faith as a weapon of mass destruction. Moderate Muslims’ efforts would be better expended owning the connection between their faith and a suicide cult and denouncing radicalism in all its forms rather than attempting to tell people how much like the rest of us they really are.
Rowan Williams who was then Archbishop of Wales was a few yards from the World Trade Centre when the first plane hit. He afterwards wrote a little book ‘Writing in the Dust’, a meditation on 9/11 and its aftermath. The book does not offer solutions but asks questions about how we should respond to terrorist attacks, and how we should learn to conduct ourselves in the climate of fear and aggression that such attacks can create. He asked ‘can anger be put to good and proper use?’ ‘What constitutes a “just war”?’ ‘What do the terrorist’s actions say about globalized cultures and economies?’ If there is a worthwhile program of Christian political action in a post-9/11 world, he wisely does not suggest one. However, he does suggest, gently and repeatedly, that “trauma can offer a breathing space.” He used the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus’ reaction to the woman caught in adultery to encourage a pause before response. Surrounded by incipient violence and anger, instead of responding immediately to the accusation and the threat of summary and immediate vengeance, Jesus “bent down and started to write – perhaps doodle – on the ground with his finger.” Instead of an instant reaction to the infamous advice about throwing stones, “again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.”
It is not a bad example to follow. When the atmosphere is thick with aggression and violence, we stop, pause, and wait. We drop the stone and try to write something new.