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On ugliness and nobility in terror

Paul Berman
June 05, 2017
Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Police take part in a search near the scene of a terror attack on London Bridge in central London on June 3, 2017.Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Police take part in a search near the scene of a terror attack on London Bridge in central London on June 3, 2017.Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

Terrorist attacks express hatred, and it would be inhuman, it would be foolish, it would be self-deluded, to respond with anything but a hatred of our own—not with a blind or crazed hatred, not with insanity, but with hatred nonetheless. I do not care what the life stories of the sundry London terrorists will turn out to be, just as I do not care about the life story of the Manchester terrorist. Has the Manchester terrorist had to suffer the indignities of being a Muslim living in a non-Muslim society that was generous enough to offer him a decent life? His sufferings do not interest me. I am writing in the immediate aftermath of the London attacks, and about the new set of terrorists I know nothing at all—not even their names, for the moment. I do not care about their names. Will it turn out that these people, too, the London terrorists, have undergone the indignities of ordinary life? Will it turn out that their families are shocked, shocked to learn the truth? Will the terrorists turn out to be people who did badly at school, or were arrested for drunk driving? Or were they people who did well at school and have never been arrested? It is a matter of indifference to me. I do not think that terrorist acts are expressions of sociological anguish, nor are they expressions of psychological anguish, nor are they the malign by-product of British imperialism, or of Zionism. The terrorist acts are the expressions of their own doctrine, and of nothing else. They are an existential choice, which is loathesomeness itself. An uglier movement than Islamist terrorism has never existed. More powerful movements have existed. But uglier ones, no. Islamist terror is the ultimate in repulsiveness.

Each new report of a terrorist atrocity brings with it news of people who responded nobly. In Manchester at the pop concert, a couple of homeless tramps were reported to have made themselves instantly helpful. The homeless men were the lowest of the low, but they were men with souls and a moral sense, and they rose to the occasion. I am writing in the first hour or two after the reports from the London attentats have been posted, and I do not know who will turn out to have responded well and nobly. But already The New York Times has published a Reuters photo by Hannah McKay of seven police officers under the headline, “Police officers responded to the attack at the London Bridge on Saturday night.” Responded? There are seven officers in the photo, one of whom might be a woman, and they are running at full speed, their feet lifted off the pavement. The sight of that photo makes me inhale. Those officers are running toward danger, toward their duty, toward the obligation that society has put on them, toward a degree of violence that cannot be known. Here is nobility.

The photo makes me pause for a moment to reflect on the President of the United States. I picture that man running in the other direction—away from America’s responsibility to the world, away from America’s obligation to lead, away from America’s historic destiny to rally the world to better purposes. But never mind the president.

The sight of the police officers stirs me. Are they running forward in a well-devised plan? Are they sufficiently well-trained? Will they end up, by accident, doing the wrong thing? Are they exposing themselves to excessive risk? They do not know, and I do not know. I know only that, until further information comes along, my heart and soul are with them.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.