The incident generated global attention. On a busy day of domestic news, U.S. TV channels replaced their early-afternoon coverage with nonstop feeds from London. There were moving tales of heroism and tragedy: A government minister desperately tried to revive the stabbed officer, but his efforts ultimately proved futile. A woman walking along Westminster Bridge fell into the Thames as the assailant's car rampaged toward Parliament, but she was pulled alive from the waters.
Even without knowing the identity or motive of the suspected assailant, numerous analysts linked the terrorist incident to tactics preached by the Islamic State. Attackers inspired by the Islamist militant group carried out vehicular rampages in Berlin in December and, most devastatingly, along a packed beachside esplanade in Nice, France, last July. (Wednesday also marked the one-year anniversary of the Islamic State's devastating assault in Brussels, which left 32 people dead.)
Such crude attacks sow uncertainty and fear by design. The sight of a single terrorist wreaking havoc just steps from Britain's Parliament, the most venerable and iconic institution of Western democracy, is dangerously symbolic. British authorities are credited with running a tighter security operation than their colleagues across the Channel, but even the seat of British political power proved vulnerable.
“This is a day that we planned for but hoped would never happen. Sadly it has now become a reality,” said the assistant Metropolitan Police commissioner, Mark Rowley, outside Scotland Yard.
“The location of this attack was no accident,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May in a statement. “The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our capital city, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech.”
But even as the wounded were being rushed to hospitals, the shadow of hate-filled politics loomed over Westminster. Notorious anti-Islam, anti-migrant campaigner Tommy Robinson arrived on the scene of the attack and began shouting vitriol against Muslims in front of baffled journalists.
“The reality is these people are waging war on us,” said Robinson. “This has been going on for 1,400 years, and while it's going on the police leaders and the political leaders want to invite more.”
Across the Atlantic, other xenophobic rabble-rousers followed suit. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke linked the attack to the perils of “DIEversity” in Britain. American neo-fascist Richard Spencer said it was time for a Muslim ban for all of Europe and the United States.
Then came President Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted an attack on London's Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan.
Trump Jr. linked to a September 2016 story in the Independent in which Khan warned that terrorist attacks were “part and parcel” of life in a major city. The implicit message was clear: Khan, who has already publicly clashed with his father over the U.S. president's views on Islam, is lax on terror.
Had Trump perhaps bothered to read the article in full, he would have found it actually detailed Khan's security concerns and repeated calls for vigilance and tighter policing. A British member of parliament from London, among a host of politicians, rounded angrily on the U.S. president's son.
But while such opportunism may have been predictable, the messaging from British authorities and officials elsewhere was sober and calm. This included measured statements of condolence and support from both the State Department and the White House. Surprisingly, Trump himself didn't tweet once about the incident, bucking his usual habit of reacting sensationally to suspected Islamist attacks in Europe.
Khan, a center-left politician who is also London's first ethnic minority mayor, kept a low profile on social media and urged Londoners to heed the instructions of the police. “Londoners will never be cowed by terrorism,” said Khan in a video statement.
May, Britain's conservative prime minister, said that “any attempt to defeat [British] values through violence and terror is doomed to failure” and declared that “Londoners — and others from around the world who have come here to visit this great city — will get up and go about their day as normal.” After spending much of Wednesday under lockdown, officials in Parliament announced its chambers would be open once more on Thursday.
This show of collective solidarity has become tragically routine in the wake of such terrorist attacks. But it is nonetheless vital in an age of political division.
“Guns and bombs pose no 'existential' threat to a country or society. Politicians who exploit it to engender fear are cynics with vested interests,” wrote Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the left-of-center Guardian newspaper.
Timothy Stanley, a columnist in the right-of-center Daily Telegraph, concurred. “Modern Britain is defined by tolerance. . . . We have seen this violence before and will endure more to come. But we don't give in to terrorists,” he wrote. “A barbarian cannot change a country as old and civilized as ours.”
As hard-liners and opportunists in the West look to score political points, and Islamist militants seek to divide through terror, the proverbial stiff upper lip is always the best way forward.
Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.