I'm ashamed to say that I can't remember whether or not I met PC Keith Palmer, the policeman murdered by Khalid Masood in Parliament last week. I have been in and out through those gates often enough, greeted in that polite, slightly wry manner that British coppers use. But, like most people, I would generally just grunt "morning," often with minimal eye contact. (As you'll have noticed, this is another British specialty.)
It is easy to take the police for granted, to see them almost as wisecracking gatekeepers. Palmer's death reminded me that these smiling, sardonic men will, when the need arises, place themselves between me and a murder weapon. From now on, I'm going to thank them properly.
Lots of politicians and journalists will be thinking similar thoughts. That's what made the attack on Parliament so effective in propaganda terms. It's not simply that reporters were nearby; it's that many of them, locked inside the Palace of Westminster, were part of the story themselves.
Then there's the history. Although we Brits can be unspeakably rude about our MPs, we still think of Parliament itself as a symbol of national freedom. We have a half-memory, somewhere at the back of our collective mind, of a smoke-wreathed Westminster Hall standing defiantly among the Nazi bombs. A terrorist abomination in the center of a provincial city would not have had the same impact, either psychologically or in news terms.
But please try to keep a sense of perspective. There has been only one casualty of Islamist violence in Britain since the 2005 Tube bombings: Lee Rigby, an off-duty soldier who was mown down by a car as he cycled outside his barracks and then hacked to death. His murderers, like the attacker in Westminster, had no access to bombs or firearms. They, too, used the most basic weapons of all: a car and a knife.
A vehicle can be deadly, of course, as the appalling attacks in Nice and Berlin demonstrated. Still, it is worth pondering the fact that the most serious jihadi attack in Britain since 2005 involved some idiots driving into Glasgow Airport, evidently under the impression that this would set it on fire. They scrambled from their burning car only to be beaten up by a nearby baggage handler.
The scarcity of attacks tells us something of the imbalance of forces. On one side stand some of the world's best counter-terrorism experts, whose successes, in the form of forestalled atrocities, can never be truly counted. On the other stand some numbskulls with cars and knives.
We should treat them as what they are: losers with laughable underwear bombs and a pleasing tendency to blow themselves up in error. But we don't. We write them up as members of a sinister global terrorist network. We describe them as a threat to the state. I heard one supposed terrorism expert preposterously telling Fox News that the attack had "brought London to a standstill." The only sign of a "standstill" I saw was a notice on a bus about "delays around Westminster." Light snow causes more disruption, for Heaven's sake.
But no one has an incentive to downplay terrorism. The academic expert, the police chief, the spook, the journalist: all come together in consciously or subconsciously wanting to magnify the drama. No politician dares point out that you are statistically more likely to be killed by a toddler than by a jihadi. So we carry on taking these losers at something close to their own estimate – that is, as soldiers engaged in a civilizational war. It is precisely this illicit glamor that draws lonely and alienated young men to political violence in the first place.
The Chinese don't report terrorist incidents, seeing no reason to give insurgents publicity. In consequence, terrorism is rare in China. Yet when Le Monde, applying the same logic, declined to print the names of the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, wishing to deny them a sense of martyrdom, it was widely criticized.
In the aftermath of the London attack, every commentator – including, I'm afraid, this one – reached for the same cliché. It was, we said, "an attack on democracy." But the real danger to democracy is that we respond in a way that cheapens our values while at the same time attracting the next unbalanced teenager looking for a nihilistic cause. The men who carry out these crimes are not holy warriors. They are ugly, emotionally stunted criminals. We need to remember that.
Dan Hannan is a British Conservative MEP.