Writing from the borders of Eastern Europe, Chris Baker reflects on the appalling terrorist attack on Westminster.
As the shocking news of the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack filtered through yesterday I felt both deeply drawn in, but also removed from the horrors that were unfolding. Being a Londoner, I have walked countless times across that bridge, and marvelled at the dramatic juxtaposition of the Palace of Westminster, and Big Ben and their constantly changing profile against the sky at one perspective and the ever-restless and mighty Thames at another. It is hard not to feel a sense of pride and history at what, for many, are iconic images of democracy and freedom that have emerged uniquely from a particularly British sensibility – what some have called ‘the mother of Parliaments.’
On the other hand, I am currently in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and seeing the news from a different European country was instructive. Being at one stage removed, one is aware of the stock images and soundtracks that accompanied similar outrages in Berlin, Brussels Paris and Nice on shaky social media – running crowds, bodies on the ground, armed services and paramedics rushing to the scene.
It had a bewildering impact on me – seeing scenes of carnage that seemed so globally familiar, but juxtaposed on streets and pavements that I knew so well. My heart goes out to all those caught up in this carnage of atavistic violence – those who died and were horrifically injured, those who tried to offer relief and comfort. Their lives will be changed for ever by the events of yesterday afternoon. I was also deeply impressed by the professionalism and courage of the British public services that was clearly on display.
But what to else to say and how to react to the events of yesterday? I think the main thing that struck me observing this from the Eastern-most borders of the European Union was how unimportant the fury and bluster that we have managed to sustain since the June referendum seemed and now seems. If there is one good thing that can emerge from the tragic events of yesterday, I hope it is that innate and instinctive sense of us being part of a wider European heritage can be tactfully remembered. I was struck by a visceral sense of solidarity of what we share with Europe which we share with no other nation or continent: that sense of close proximity (French students and others from other nations were caught up in the horror of yesterday’s events); that sense that what felt under attack was a tradition of liberal democracy that is expressed on so many exciting and dynamic ways across the European continent; that sense that we now know something of what Berlin, Paris, Nice and Brussels have been through. It shows that in the face of a common evil, what is required is a dignity and courage to receive as well as to give, to rely on deep bonds of culture and history when words fail and feelings cannot be articulated.
This is not an apology for European or Western hegemony – there is far too much to say that needs to recognise the shadow side of British and European imperialism, the legacy of which undoubtedly exacerbates feelings of grievance and alienation to this day. What I want to say is really the opposite. The tragic and violent loss of life on the streets of London shows that life and solidarity are more important things to invest in. That will be with humankind first and foremost, but then you tend to want to share your grief and solidarity with those nearest to you – and for us, those nearest to us, with bonds of trade, culture, war and peace, are the our sister nations within Europe.
Of course, we forsake these bonds at our peril. Is it too counter-intuitive to suggest that when you neglect, forget or take for granted deep solidarities and shared visions with those you were once closest to, that it allows other forces of anarchy and fragmentation to come in and fill that vacuum? The resilience, collective wisdom and creativity to disown and discredit these forces becomes dissipated and fragmented. Irrespective of where you stand on the Brexit vote, yesterday’s horrors serve as a stark reminder that in today’s world, no country is an island and no one society can withstand and defeat the worst excesses of globalised evil. Rather we need to be reminded of our interconnectedness with those around us, but especially those with whom we naturally share so much.
My hope and prayer is that it will be a long time before a little Britain or Englander mentality raises its ugly head again to shore up a supposed sense of superiority over our European neighbours. This period of deep and sober reflection, and soul searching, must be time for recognising that we share so much more than what apparently divides us, and that in the face of such nihilistic death, we affirm our common identity and love of diversity, freedom, equality and life itself. There are more important things than fear of losing face or acting on perceived slights to our nationhood. One of those things is to re-imagine a strong, free and capacious Europe which we are pleased to be part of and pleased to strengthen. If we don’t, the nihilists have won, and the huge sacrifice of those who gave their lives and skills to save others in the name of compassionate solidarity will once more be in vain.
Chris Baker is Director of Research at the William Temple Foundation
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