Living in an Age of Extremity

We used to live in uninteresting times, as much as that can ever be said.

Things did not seem to happen. And if they did happen, they happened to other people. The rest of life and the business of living passed easily, dreamily, and the world was always at arm’s length.

During the twilight years of New Labour and in the Cameron ministry, Britain was at once connected to the world and distinct, a part of the whole but apart from it.

Or that’s how it seemed. In reality the world is never far away. The first shock to that idea of calm was the great recession. It punctured all illusions of safety. No one my age imagines that we will live in a wholly prosperous, wholly secure country again.

This pessimism is unfounded. We already live richly and well. The recovery is well underway. There will be another boom. But all of us, of all generations, were affected by the crash. We are now, all of us, even if subconsciously, looking for the rot, looking to see the cracks we can sense, waiting for them to appear.

Finance is one thing. Terrorism quite another.

The attacks on London in July 2005 were the end of something, but it was not quite clear then what that was. An illusion had been shattered – a sense of safety had disappeared – but it was both sudden and slow, dramatic and dimly felt.

All the terroristic violence which seems commonplace did not appear likely. Robert Harris’s book The Ghost, a sort of pre-emptive satire of the latter Blair years, portrays a Britain in which there are bombs going off every week.

Nonsense, I thought, even reading it years after it had lost all contemporary relevance. Ridiculous stuff, all of it.

That does not look all that wrong any more.

They aren’t using bombs – or not always, though they did bring one into murderous employment in Manchester – but they are using knives and cars and trucks, and they’re going to keep using them to inflict violence upon European cities indefinitely.

A bomb is not going off every week, but somewhere, in a city in Europe, there is going to be a terrorist attack of some kind every second week. Stabbings in London, shootings in Paris – murder by vehicle in too many towns to name. You could almost set your watch by it.

There’s no way to stop it. You can’t ban knives or cars or heavy vehicles. And criminalising murderous intent is a non-starter. The same goes for extreme religion. Its siren-call can only attract minds willing to receive such things. There’s no stopping that, not in essence.

Telling people to get used to this sort of terrorism is not going to help and can only present problems. It can only store up local anxiety which will boil over into rage. But it has to be said and it is right. Such things cannot be stopped entirely. The modus operandi of terrorists has changed. Now their weapons of choice are commonplace and their targets abound.

This method of fighting has a long tail. It’s been a long time coming.

Committed analysts can trace it all back to al-Qaeda guidelines produced in Inspire, a propaganda publication of the terror organisation, in 2010, and also to the instructions issued by the Islamic State’s late spokesman al-Adnani, who in a statement dated September 22, 2014, declared: ‘If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.’

Nothing one can really do in the face of that.

There’s an irony to all this.

I can’t help but note that these attacks are largely a by-product of the success of European nations’ counter-terrorism programmes, which restrict bomb-making and the ways in which weapons can fall into the hands of potential attackers. And similarly, these attacks are almost impossible to foil, as they are easy to plan and carry out and almost impossible to prevent or disrupt.

These things are also invariably aimed at soft targets.

This method of terrorism is so low level it’s almost parodic. But it is invariably effective. Seemingly random people pick up knives and start killing. It could be anyone. No wonder these things are impossible to predict and counter, even if, once the killing starts, the killers themselves can be dealt with remarkably rapidly.

In many ways this has fed into a mood of anxiety and unease but it is also a product of a change in the state of the continent and the nation.

Europe is uneasy and Britain is too. Change, of a less violent sort, is in the air and everything is up in the air.

We’ve had the sudden departure of a prime minister who seemed perpetually at ease and the hounding of a prime minister whose reputation has collapsed so fast it probably took her by surprise.

She went from being a new Iron Lady to a harassed seat-filler in under a week.

On top of that came a more visceral threat, more frightening even than terror. The horrific fire at Grenfell Tower simply compounded a sudden slide into emotional anarchy.

There are hundreds of tower blocks in the country. Elsewhere housing is closely packed and ancient. Everyone one of them is now looked at in a different way. No longer plain features of the landscape – death traps, thousands of closely packed streets, all of them potential tinderboxes.

This situation can only create paranoia. There’s no escaping it.

But all of this seems explicable now, frighteningly plausible.

And as local authorities and governments rally round to inspect old high-rises, and as the terror level fluctuates, and as everything comes closer to officially licensed chaos, it becomes all the more understandable why so many thirst for easy answers.