The London attack and Britain’s shattered illusion of immunity

For the next few days in the U.K., it will be a grim and familiar routine

Sunday morning, Britain awoke to what’s becoming familiar news: yet another terrorist attack, this one near London Bridge and the busy and convivial epicurean centre of Borough Market.

After 10 pm on Saturday night, a white van was reported to have jumped the curb and ploughed into several people crossing London Bridge. Shortly after, multiple men wielding long knives entered the market and began randomly stabbing civilians. The victims are said to have included at least one young girl and restaurant patrons sitting and enjoying evening drinks and dinner. Witnesses told reporters they heard the assailants shouting “This is for Allah!” as they indiscriminately wounded people. A photograph of one of the attackers, after being shot by police, showed canisters strapped to his body in the manner of a suicide bomber. Police later confirmed the vest was a hoax.

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For some reason it was this strange detail that gave the press the most pause. In the anxious wee hours after the attack, reporters and commentators marvelled over it. How oddly vain this attacker must have been to play-act being a suicide bomber when he was heading out to murder people with his own hands. Why bother with such a ludicrous pretence when you are on the brink of committing unspeakable acts? It suggests a certain childish delusion about the whole thing. As if they’d planned it one way and had to adjust but couldn’t quite bear to abandon the original boyish fantasy.

But the results were all too real. As of this morning, seven civilians had been declared dead along with three suspects shot and killed by police. An additional 48 people were injured and taken to hospital.

READ MORE: London terror attack as van rams people on London Bridge

Prime Minister Theresa May declared the incident a suspected terrorist attack and—as happened right after last month’s suicide bombing in Manchester—campaigning for Thursday’s upcoming general election has been suspended at a national level.

Just as recently as a couple of months ago, it would have seemed ludicrous to characterize such an attack as commonplace, and yet the word no longer seems an exaggeration.

For the past few years, the U.K. has warily observed the devastation wrought by terrorism in neighbouring countries like France, Belgium and Germany and regarded itself as set apart from the danger. Britain—so it told itself—was a more tolerant, better-integrated society than France. And one with superior security services and tighter border controls than Belgium or Germany. After the shock of the 7/7 London tube bombings, there was a widespread feeling here that top-notch British security forces, with their world-class counterterrorism intelligence, had and would continue to keep this country safer than its European neighbours.

But three incidents in just over three months here have shattered this fragile illusion of immunity. They have also created a sensation of deja vu. Well over 30 people are dead now, and hundreds more have been injured. All of the attacks were, it appears, perpetrated by male Islamic fundamentalists.

RELATED: A timeline of U.K. terror attacks

Whether these attackers’ connections to far-flung civil wars or terrorist groups are tenuous (as seems to be the case with Westminster attacker Kahlid Masood) or tangible (as with Manchester bomber Salman Abedi), the ideological link is unquestionably there.

But in a just and free multicultural democracy, what is there to do? Short of banning automobiles and kitchen knives or transforming Britain into a police state complete with internment camps and tanks rolling down the Mall, there are few radical options available to British leaders or authorities.

Instead, in all likelihood, they will continue to do what they have done in the past: ramp up domestic and international security. Put the country on high alert. Post soldiers with semi-automatic weapons at airports and train stations. And pray that somehow, some way, they are able to head off the next one. And the one after that.

For the next few days in the U.K., it will be a grim and familiar routine.

Britons will spend the rest of their weekend looking at news alerts as the details trickle in. Another period of mourning as the names of the victims are released. Another day of politicians declaring the attack a tragedy or an act of cowardice, or simply (because this is an election week) hoping it might swing public sympathy this way or that. There will be witnesses giving shaky-voiced eye-witness accounts of the horrors they have witnessed and others praising the bravery of the police and emergency responders. There will be talk of “people coming together.” And lip service will be paid to the idea that Londoners will “keep calm and carry on.” There will, inevitably, be a statement from the Palace expressing their sadness for the victims and their families.

We know the drill at this point. The routine has become a sad, familiar dance. Everything is changed and yet none of it is likely to change a thing.