LONDON—I still remember how fearful and disoriented I felt back in the spring of 2013, when one of my colleagues looked up from her laptop in the middle of a seminar and said: “Apparently, there’s been some kind of explosion at the marathon.” And I still remember how completely out of the ordinary Boston seemed over the following days, as the authorities asked millions of people to shelter in place while they looked for the Tsarnaev brothers, and the city ground to a complete standstill.
What a melancholy difference a few years make.
On Saturday night, I went to see a comedy show at the Soho Theatre in the heart of London. “These days, you never know what news might break while I’m up here,” Andy Zaltzman quipped at the beginning of his act, “so I brought a laptop on stage just in case.”
A few hours later, as I left the theater’s bar with a friend, a young man came up to us, almost conspiratorially, and asked: “Have you heard?” We looked confused. “There’s been some kind of attack near London Bridge,” he explained.
This time around, my first reaction was not fear but sadness, not a sense of disorientation but rather one of resigned clarity. Even before I had looked at Twitter, even before the Guardian had started its inevitable live blog, I instinctively knew what there was to know: I knew that this must be yet another terrorist attack and that more innocent people must have been made to suffer a senseless death. And I also knew that this attack would not succeed in changing London, or in swaying the upcoming election, or in winning new converts to the murderous ideology of extremist Islamism.
Though I knew all that, I was surprised just how unperturbed the revelers I encountered on my way home seemed to be. Anyone who has been to an English town center late at night knows roughly what to expect, from shouting men and staggering women to pools of piss and vomit. But while there can be something thoroughly tawdry about British drinking culture, those same sights took on an altogether new meaning for me this time around: The couple sloppily making out in the middle of the road became a testament to love. The girls in bandaged skirts lining up for a club became a tribute to sexual freedom.
I don’t know whether the people who just kept on partying had not yet heard of the attack or whether they had simply decided to stay out regardless. But it didn’t really matter. Because a band of religious fanatics had tried to kill as many infidels as possible a few miles away, the fact that they were still out in the streets became a political statement: “You will never be able to change who we are or how we live.”
It would, then, be tempting to celebrate the new era of relative indifference in the face of the terrorist threat. As the name suggests, terror works by terrorizing. Back when such attacks were rare and disorienting, they had the ability to instill fear in millions of people, to derail day-to-day life, and of course to set the political agenda. Their extraordinary power was partially rooted in our obliging reaction to them.
That may well be. And yet, I also think that our inability to feel genuine terror is itself terrifying: It is not just that, while cable news still goes wall to wall, our collective compassion for the victims is becoming a little less fervent, and a little more rote, with every bombing and stabbing. It’s also that we have slowly come to accept what would have seemed unfathomable just a few short years ago: that, for the foreseeable future, terrorist attacks will remain a regular occurrence in the big cities of North America and Western Europe.
So, yes, perhaps some amount of learned indifference is the only way to cope with the constant threat that terrorism now poses. This is how Israelis have been behaving for years. But to stay truly sane, we must also remember just how insane the senseless slaughter that has so quickly become commonplace in the hearts of our cities really is.