This weekend’s attacks in London come to us as a sobering reminder of the fragility of human life, and, so soon after the heinous terror attack at the Manchester Arena, an urgent reminder of our need to do more to protect our diverse society from the growing threat posed by extremist ideology.
As in Paris, as in Manchester, as in Berlin, as in Mosul, as in Stockholm, as in Nice, as in Mogadishu – just a few of the 61 Islamist terrorist attacks globally in the last 18 months which have left over 1,700 dead and over 3,500 injured – the targets of Saturday’s murderers were not strategic sites of national importance. They were bustling centres of civilian activity: restaurants, bars, cafes, and free public spaces, symbolic only of the pursuit of community and happiness. In Borough Market or London Bridge on any evening, you’ll find people enjoying themselves, spending time with friends and loved ones, living their lives. The war that Islamist extremists preach is not only a war on ‘the West’, in vague geopolitical terms, but a war on a way of life that prizes freedom: whether that’s the freedom to drink alcohol, the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs, to dress how we like, or to simply let off steam after a busy week’s work.
The victims of the attack represented London in all its diversity and strength: they included people from all around the world, of many different races and creeds. The only named victim so far is Canadian woman Chrissy Archibald, who lived her life according to a belief ‘that every person was to be valued and respected’, who spent much of her adult life volunteering to help the homeless, who was a contributor to human happiness and welfare and wellbeing. Every victim of this attack, like Chrissy, will no doubt have stories from their life that can inspire us as they emerge for us – stories that have now come to a dramatic and sudden end. When we consider the victims of recent terror atrocities in London, Manchester, Paris, and Brussels, or in towns and cities in Egypt, Pakistan, Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq, it only takes a few moments of reflection to realise just how amazing most people are. The vast majority of us, however imperfect and complex and contradictory we may be, are good people trying to live good and fulfilling lives.
What, then, can we make of this current spate of atrocities? These attacks conform, no doubt, to the classical aims of terror: to disrupt our way of living, to turn neighbour against neighbour, to weaken our democratic community. As ever, they also invite us to strip away our own freedoms in the name of safety. They inspire fear and loathing. Their intention is the corruption of our hearts and the weakening of our resolves so that the way will be paved for the victory of a brutal alternative vision of the world.
But as for the increasing frequency of such attacks, and the cause, our elected representatives surely have more thinking to do. If when these attackers are named we learn that they were of British origin, as was the case with the Manchester Arena murderer, then surely it will be more apparent than ever that the UK is suffering not only from adherents of a creed hellbent on destruction, but from failures of our own domestic policy across education, the building of social cohesion, and anti-extremism efforts, which have allowed an ideology of hate not just to fester but to spread. For the moment, with the names of victims still to be announced, grief and reflection are all that are called for. But, in the weeks and months that follow this, we re-commit ourselves as an organisation to working to address the many causes – religious and otherwise – of the murderous campaign of the current extremists, and to work together in this with the rest of civil society, including with the many religious believers who share our aim of a free and tolerant world.
We all have the power, as individuals, to choose life and to continue enjoying ourselves. To do less than this would be surrender: it would fulfil the aims that ISIS set for itself when it called for a holy month of attacks on UK soil. As humanists, we have to be idealists: to consider how it is we should aspire to live and to hold ourselves to those high standards. But just as important to our way of thinking is realism: and it is the tragic truth that we do not have the power to make ourselves perfectly safe from harm. We have no platitudes to offer, and at this tragic time we only offer one thought: life is short. Life is far, far too short. These are both words of caution and also a reminder of why it is we value freedom. For the humanist, there is only this life, and it is a life imbued with ultimate importance. So, please, remain vigilant. Do your best to stay safe. But just as importantly, remember that it is essential, that it is imperative, to stay true to who you are and hold tightly to those values of reason and kindness that we cherish.
At Humanists UK, we want a tolerant world where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work helps people be happier and more fulfilled, and by bringing non-religious people together we help them develop their own views and an understanding of the world around them.