London—Okay, now it’s personal.
The first I heard about the attack here was an e-mail from my son’s school yesterday afternoon informing parents that “there has been a security incident at the Houses of Parliament” but that “Pupils and Staff are all safe.” His school is literally next door to Westminster Abbey, about two blocks from Big Ben. So I was enormously relieved, and touched, to get a text from the boy himself just five minutes later, assuring me he was indeed safe—and had been locked inside the science building during the incident. It was less reassuring when he reminded me that if the attack had taken place just a bit later in the day he and his friends could easily have been crossing Parliament Square when the attacker’s Hyundai turned into the square on its murderous route from Westminster Bridge to Parliament. The Westminster underground station—my son’s route to and from school every day—was still closed this morning.
So yes, the attack shook me. That’s the point of terrorism—to terrify. And as London Mayor Sadiq Khan pointed out last September, when a bomb went off during his visit to New York City, all of us who live in big cities now live with the threat of such attacks. It is the job of our leaders, Khan said, “to make sure that we are as safe as we can be.”
That threat can never be entirely eliminated. When we moved here way back in the 1990s I was haunted by Dutch Shea, the title character in a novel by John Gregory Dunne, whose daughter is killed by an IRA bomb while on a visit to London with her mother. How awful, I thought then, to be the victim of someone else’s quarrel.
Because if you’re an American, and lucky, it’s almost always someone else’s quarrel. Ireland, South Africa, Angola, Chile, Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen—other people’s wars. Or as the British often say, “Nothing to do with me, mate.” Only they don’t tend to say it about wars. Or terrorism. The reasons for that are historical, and complicated. But they were thrown into relief this week with the death of Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander who made peace with his enemies, serving with the fiercest of them, Ian Paisley, as joint leaders of the Northern Ireland Assembly.