Sober times here in the UK; a wave of terrorist attacks, the latest last night when someone driving a van, another hired one, deliberately ploughed into a group of people outside a mosque in London. An ordinary man, say his Muslim neighbours, friendly; their kids played with each other; no reason to suspect he might be planning murder.
I struggle to understand what turns people into terrorists, what makes people decide it is alright, even a duty, to kill others in the name of their cause. The heat of the moment, anger, reaction I get. I understand the rage, grief and frustration that sent crowds to the Kensington and Chelsea Council offices in the aftermath of the inferno at Grenfell Tower. No, correct that, I can approach understanding those feelings, but I was not in that fire. I did not lose friends, family, pets, everything I hold dear in something which seems to have been wholly preventable. The eye witness accounts are stomach churning. The horror, at this distance, overwhelming, so no, I cannot imagine how it must be for people who witnessed this first hand, who escaped, who survived and today look up at that ghastly ruin. How they feel, how they will survive, how they sleep when fear and flashbacks must surely colour their every moment. There was a newspaper report today, i carried a story about survivors meeting Mrs May at Downing Street and how she ‘welled up’ hearing their accounts, showing a different woman from the expected caricature of the Prime Minister, according to Mark O’Donoghue, Dean of Kensington.
I find his comments bizarre. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by what people went through on the night of the fire, what they continue to go through, what they will suffer for the rest of their lives. Welling up at their stories does not suddenly transform Theresa May into an empathetic Prime Minister. She showed distinct lack of leadership qualities last week. It was the Queen, now 91, who showed true strength of character, real leadership, who went with Prince William, met people and listened to them, who acted for the rest of us who remained mesmerised with the horror and unable to act.
Though apparently some people do have hearts of stone. I read that there have been taunts and jibes on social media about the ethnicity of many of those who lived and died in Grenfell Tower, about the status of some as refugees and asylum seekers. Fortunately there has also been a show of solidarity and strength; rich neighbours donated goods; mattresses, blankets, even Gucci handbags. If my home burned down I doubt if a Gucci handbag would comfort me, it never having been something I have wanted, but it takes all sorts. While the local council, the tenants’ management organisation and the government seemed unable or unwilling to coordinate a coherent response, money poured in and continues to pour in to help the survivors. Community organisations opened their doors to give food and shelter. An 81-year-old woman who was helping said she had not had much experience of meeting her young Muslim neighbours before this, and now she was with them she found them wonderful. Small glimpses of silver.
Sadiq Khan looks as though he hasn’t slept in days. He is another whose leadership qualities have been tested and found to be solid. Not all the papers have come out of this well. The Express asked on its front page if EU regulation meant deadly cladding was used, while the Mail was quick to suggest that green targets might be to blame. Both nonsense and examples of cynical editors pursuing their own hobby horses at a time of tragedy.
It may be too late to save Mrs May’s political career, but perhaps meeting real people, listening to their stories instead of hiding away and meeting only the party faithful, will help her to understand that real strength comes from humanity and honesty, not from soundbites and slogans.