Westminster attack leaves lasting effects

Westminster+attack+leaves+lasting+effects

March 22 was like any other Wednesday. Ben Shields (’17) had just arrived home from school, when he got a call from his mom, Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Internet Crime and Harms Baroness Joanna Shields. “Listen Ben, there’s been an attack. I was near Parliament, but the car turned around as we were about to approach Parliament and they got me to a safe location and I’m fine. Just so you know. Don’t be worried. I’m OK,” she said.

Khalid Masood drove a van down Westminster Bridge at around 2:40 p.m., killing four and injuring at least 50, 31 of whom had to go to the hospital, according to The Independent. Deaths included Police Officer Keith Palmer who was stabbed by Masood when he entered the gates of Parliament. Masood was later killed by police gunshot.

The news of the attack stunned Ben, but he was comforted with the knowledge that his mother was secure. “At first I felt really reassured that she was safe and everything was OK, but I was really worried that somebody we know might have been hurt or that something might have gone wrong somewhere else in London – that this might have been the first of many attacks,” he said.

Hours of uncertainty lingered after the attack and Joanna remained in a safe place until there was more clarity towards how events were unfolding. “For hours all you could hear was the persistent hum of police and emergency helicopters overhead. All government buildings were swept and secured, and for many hours it was not clear whether this was an attack by one individual or if the incident was part of a wider coordinated plan,” she said.

An aspect of Joanna’s current role is countering the presence of terrorist organizations online. The attack on Westminster reminded her of the importance of her efforts. “Though I already work on countering extremism and terrorism, this attack in London, where I live, and in Parliament, my place of work, has had a profound impact on me and strengthened my resolve in fighting,” she said.

The attack also reminded Ben of the danger surrounding his mother’s role. “It certainly is a scary notion that these groups that my mom does work to counter are targeting Parliament. It’s a weird thought that your parents work as a target constantly,” he said.

Unlike Ben, Isabel Rosen (’19) was still at school at the time of the attack. Had she been at home, Rosen would’ve been minutes away from Westminster. “[My mom] told me about the attack and my first thought was, ‘Oh my god, are my little sisters okay?’,” she said.

Rosen didn’t immediately feel scared by the event. “Honestly I was a bit under whelmed at the fear I was feeling. I thought that I should’ve been having a more extreme reaction to it, but honestly I feel like since we hear so much about these [attacks], it wasn’t really that consequential for me, even if it was right by my house.”

As Rosen lives so close to Parliament, she and her family were evacuated from their home the following evening. “They thought that there might be some sort of explosive nearby, so they wanted to make sure the blast radius was cleared,” she said. “My little sisters, they were definitely more afraid than I was. You had the panic on the inside, but having little siblings that you need to keep calm really helped in not having all the thoughts that could go wrong.”

Strong Cities Network Manager Rebecca Skellett, who works at the London-based counter terrorism organization Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), was surprised by the timing of the attack, but anticipated that an attack on London would come. “We are always expecting something to happen. It’s always going to be a question of when, not if,” she said.

Skellett believes the motivations behind the attack are unclear, as they neither fully fit the profile of a Daesh or Al Qaeda attack.

In reading Al Qaeda magazine material a few years ago, Skellett came across striking content that emulates the Westminster attack. “[The magazine] had detailed instructions… even how to scar your tires to create a maximum ability for the car to flip and cause skidding on a motorway so you’d be able to take out more cars and more pedestrians,” she said. “To get down to that level of detail in those magazines is indicative of just how much they advocate for the use of individuals to use anything in their means to create attacks on the west and symbolically on our way of life.”

In the wake of the attack, Skellett believes the response from London emergency forces and leaders was carried out well. “They were very cautionary about the information they released. They didn’t call it a terrorist attack from the get go, which is incredibly important to making sure that communities don’t feel like they’re being targeted without the evidence base, particularly if they were to come out and say this was Islamic extremism,” she said. “We know from experience in London that as soon as those types of remarks are made there tends to be a backlash against the Muslim community.”

Although London leaders didn’t release speculative information regarding the motives of the attack, Skellett fears that the media contributes to the presence of Islamophobia and these sentiments play into the hands of Daesh. “I worry we’re giving into a cycle where it doesn’t look like it can ever end,” she said.

The day after the attack, local leaders such as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Home Secretary Amber Rudd brought community members together in vigils for those who lost their lives. Ben was comforted by images from these gatherings. “When I saw the pictures of the vigil the next day and the following days… when police and Muslims were marching together on the bridge right next to Parliament, that gave me hope,” he said.

The sense of community that arose as a result of the terror attack from public officials heartened Joanna. “What struck me most was the sense of solidarity and community that followed. In spite of all of the acrimony of politics, in the end we are all public servants doing the best we can to serve our community, and losing Palmer, one of our colleagues, hit hard,” she said.

Ben believes that London proved strong and resilient in the face of tragedy. “I would say that it continues to show that London is, and the U.K. at large, is doing the most to counter violent extremism and I think continues to do the best job of keeping domestic security and safety,” he said.

Despite feelings of resilience from some Londoners, Skellett believes the lasting effects of this attack will be in Muslim communities across the country. “Just imagine going home that night as a person of the Muslim faith, putting on the TV and just seeing the speculation, the blame and the sense of shame that it gives communities constantly,” she said.

Skellett maintains it is essential that community members understand the true motives of religion. “The questions of, ‘Will I have a hate crime committed against me because of the British public’s inability to divorce my faith from these acts of violence?’ That’s always going to be a contention until there’s more of an understanding across society that this is not representative of a faith in fact, surprise, surprise, no faith condones violence,” she said. “That message just seems to get lost.”