Terrorists Try To Make Ordinary Life Unlivable

Terrorism threatens Western democracy not by how many it kills, but by the possibility it can undermine the trust, security and optimism life depends on.
Borough Market in London
Borough Market in London

Terrorists try to make ordinary life unlivable. So it was for anarchists before World War I and Zionists before the creation of Israel. So it was for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the IRA, and so it is now for some radical Islamists.

The latest bit of ordinary life to be attacked means a lot to me. I lived in Borough Market until last year, with a view of London Bridge from my flat. I loved it.

Borough Market

During the week, the market’s stalls sell bread baked on site; meats, fruit and vegetables from local farms; oysters from a seventh-generation Essex oysterman; a fantastic array of English cheese and some from farther afield in Europe. There are flowers and chocolates, often musicians and occasionally Morris dancing. Crowds grow ever thicker through the week, locals mixing with people visiting from London’s outer boroughs and even tourists. It’s jammed by the weekends, with a cosmopolitan crowd of the kind that underpinned London opposition to Brexit. It’s a lovely bit of ordinary life to attack.

On a Saturday night, like the night of the June 3 attacks, crowds follow a very English custom and stand outside pubs like The Market Porter, The Southwark Tavern, and The Wheatsheaf. This is where attackers wielding large knives slashed and stabbed seemingly random patrons and staff.

One of London’s oldest and largest markets, Borough Market manages to be very English while very international ― like much of London. This is supported by gentrification, including the conversion of warehouses into flats such as the one where my wife and I lived. The benefits and displacements of gentrification have spread only unevenly into the rest of Southwark (also known to locals as “the Borough”). Southwark has its own cathedral, adjacent the market, and a proud history: its Tabard Inn was the point of departure for the pilgrims in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. But though it is just across the Thames from the City of London, the Borough hasn’t shared much in its wealth until recently.

Southwark Cathedral
Southwark Cathedral

One of Borough Market’s most famous restaurants is Roast, a leading force in the renewal and upgrading of English cooking; it even promotes wines from Kent and Sussex. It’s a great place to come for a traditional Sunday roast ― though after the attacks all of Borough Market has been locked down. Roast’s founder and owner is an iconic London entrepreneur, Iqbal Wahhab. Born in what is now Bangladesh when it was still East Pakistan, he was brought to London as an infant, graduated from the London School of Economics, and a few years ago honored by the Queen with induction into the Order of the British Empire. He’s a reminder that Muslim immigrants are neither new nor incapable of integrating into British society.

National Insecurity

Terrorist attacks intensify the hostility to immigrants, which already helped fuel the Brexit vote that will take the United Kingdom out of the European Union. In itself, opposition to immigration is not new or high by historical standards. But today it is a symbol of anxiety about the effects of globalization and the path taken by British society. The anxiety stems not just from prejudice against immigrants but economic upheaval, decline in too many communities and a sort of crisis in national identity. Prompted partly by Scottish demands for independence, English nationalists have grown louder at the expense of Britain’s overall solidarity.

The very prosperity of London plays a role in that crisis. England is sharply divided between zones of prosperity and decline. London, the southeast, and a few other centers like Manchester and Bristol are economically vibrant. The rest of the country is not, and some of it lags very far behind.

London is a preeminent global financial and cultural center. It is home to several of the world’s top universities and museums and some of its best theater and music. It is also the seat of highly centralized national government. Together, these provide employment and entertainment to a thriving professional class of lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, media producers, educators and bureaucrats. Borough Market provides them with food, conviviality and even a simultaneous sense of authenticity and affirmation of cosmopolitanism.

Elsewhere, the near elimination of manufacturing employment has been catastrophic. This was hastened by globalization, and jobs were lost to overseas competition far more than to immigrants. But the underlying causes were changes in technology, industrial organization and markets ― and the decline would have come anyway. It came with wrenching speed, however, cutting off the careers of many who had worked hard and long and eliminating local job opportunities for the next generation. Most people found work, but disproportionately in less well-paid parts of the service sector and less and less often in the towns where they grew up.

The end of manufacturing also made the integration of immigrants much harder. The same globalization that closed the factories brought a new wave of immigrants. Some swelled professional ranks, working for investment banks and universities. Others filled public housing estates and run-down neighborhoods. Had industrial employment lasted longer it could have provided these immigrants with better jobs, opportunities and contact with indigenous colleagues. It could have provided more young men with a sense of a good British future. Difficulties were exacerbated by misguided policies that concentrated immigrants into quasi-ghettos and made leaders of conservative cultural spokesmen. Patriarchy was reinforced even while there were few good jobs for young men unless they went to university ― and to London or another prosperous city.

View of London Bridge
View of London Bridge

The sources of Islamicist radicalism are not worlds apart from those nationalist and anti-immigrant passions. Nor are patterns of discontent and deteriorating social cohesion limited to Britain. In France, for example, many young men of immigrant backgrounds feel blocked from viable integration and good lives at the same time that many people of longer French ancestry are upset by deteriorating employment opportunities and returns, regional disparities and threats to la France profonde. Some of the former become Islamists; some of the latter support the National Front.

The pattern extends to the United States and elsewhere: manufacturing decline, regional disparity, growing inequality, globalization and cultural division – notably between educated and cosmopolitan professional elites and others. Racism can complement religious bias as native workers and non-metropolitan members of the middle classes stake claims to a larger share of national wealth on ethnicity and citizenship rather than education or marketable skills. Many turn to increasingly nationalist right-wing political leaders, joined by older citizens whose lives are economically more secure because of welfare programs the left had put in place but who feel insecure because their country is changing fast and their communities seem threatened.

In short, in many places and for many people, ordinary life has been under attack for a long time, at least since the 1970s. And while terrorists are not necessarily very discriminating in their targets, in both Manchester and London they attacked relatively well-off and cosmopolitan targets. They attacked parts of the U.K. where ordinary life was thriving ― and this also meant they would get more media attention.


Terrorist attacks like that in Borough Market are expressive as well as instrumental. When an attacker reportedly shouted, “This is for my family, this is for Islam” just before stabbing a 23 year-old man outside a pub, he articulated a possible personal meaning for his actions. He may have hoped he would inspire others. But there was likely little more detailed strategic agenda. Yet damage to ordinary life does have effects, whether or not they are clearly foreseen by perpetrators.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State has claimed credit for the London attacks. We can’t really call the terrorists ISIS “members” because they appear to have acted largely on their own, though no doubt informed by both ideology and practical advice circulating on the web and in Islamist networks. Contrary to the image of tightly organized “cells” in a clear larger structure, terrorism today works largely by recruiting semi-independent protagonists ― and each highly publicized attack is itself a recruiting device for the next. Video of the 9/11 attacks continues to recruit to this day, even though Al Qaeda is no longer a central organizational structure.

After the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks, police made arrests in East London, long famous as home to successive waves of immigrants. Their attention focused on Barking and Newham, on the North side of the river, around City Airport. Barking was once a fishing village and center of boat repair, then of light industry. Now it is more a target of urban renewal efforts. Social cohesion has suffered along with employment; shuttered shops and streets with half the houses derelict or demolished don’t promote community. Newham is an artificial creation out of bits of neighboring hamlets. Both Barking and Newham were recently ranked among Britain’s five least happy places to live. The happiest are disproportionately well-off and overwhelmingly white Northern towns that have retained social cohesion and prosperous high streets as they became increasingly suburban ― like Harrogate and Chester. By contrast, Barking and Newham are poor, and house two of Britain’s highest concentrations of Pakistanis and Muslim immigrants from other countries.

Terrorism is not an effort to engage military adversaries. It is an effort to undermine civilian life, to damage the social fabric, to make it impossible for people to go about their lives.

Islamist terrorism in Britain has been largely home-grown. The crimes are generally perpetrated not by recent arrivals but by young men who grew up in Britain (mainly England), often in highly segregated areas. That’s true of the ringleader of these attacks, though one of the others was half Moroccan, half Italian. Media focus falls on their religion, but often the terrorists have only recently become enthusiasts, a term first employed in this context to refer to out of control Christians during the Protestant Reformation. That they are young men with only marginal economic futures points to three common denominators that may be at least as important. They also do as much as specificities of Islam to explain their willingness to die along with their victims. Indeed, terrorists have come from a variety of religious ― and non-religious ― backgrounds.

Muslims around the world notice the work of martyrs, some with horror and others with applause. The horror comes especially from all those Muslims committed to ordinary lives of their own, to communities, jobs and countries they hope can prosper. The applause comes from those who think such ordinary hopes and happiness stand in the way of recognizing oppression or pursuing purity or are simply signs of an intolerable complacency.

International links among terrorists are mostly media flows, supplemented for some by stints fighting in Afghanistan or with the ISIS in Iraq. The Borough Market attackers evidently watched recordings of the infamous American Salafist preacher Ahmad Musa Jibril. More organized networks manage financial flows and complex actions ― like those of 9/11. But terrorists like those in Manchester and London can find vans, knives and explosives without reliance on any elaborate international terrorist infrastructure.

There are also terrorists, often better organized, working within predominantly Muslim societies. Indeed, most Islamist terrorists kill other Muslims. Minorities are disproportionate victims, like Egypt’s long-suffering Copts. Foreigners may be targeted, but attacks on the tourist industry in Egypt or Tunisia are also attacks on the employment and ordinary lives of locals. So are attacks on markets and parks and busy streets. The organizations and individuals behind terrorism are seldom advocates for stronger economies, better housing or other practical improvements. They may call for the implementation of Shari’ah, a religious code of ethics, but few are really engaged with legal reform or deep religious study. They pursue a shortcut to salvation.

In largely Muslim societies, terror often has more specific political agendas, for example for the Taliban who wish to rule Afghanistan. Disruption of ordinary life undermines existing government and opens a path to national power. Pakistani radicals challenge both the government’s agenda for development based on international trade and the lives of citizens they deem too secular or liberal. They may describe themselves as members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the “the army of the pure” like those who attacked the Taj Hotel in Mumbai. Or they may call themselves Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the “assembly of the free,” like those who killed over 70 civilians in a Lahore park last year.

As it happens, Jamaat struck again while I was in Lahore a few months ago. Though I was near when the bomb went off, on Mall Road, I was headed away and suffered nothing worse than an unusually bad traffic jam.

Terrorism kills, but snarling traffic is a welcome side benefit from the point of view of terrorists. It too makes ordinary life difficult and commands attention. So did removing letter boxes and trash receptacles from central London when the IRA used them to explode letter bombs in the 1970s.

This is why terrorists attack concerts and hotels and sports events and Saturday night street life. Those killed may be kids or couples out for dinner or just people walking down the street. Again, that’s the point. Terrorism is not an effort to engage military adversaries. It is an effort to undermine civilian life, to damage the social fabric, to make it impossible for people to go about their lives ignoring whatever it is the terrorists think is most important.

To be sure, the 9/11 attackers chose targets that symbolized global capitalism and American military power. But in addition to those grand statements, they also attacked ordinary life. I was having breakfast with my parents who lived across the street from the World Trade Center. Their lives were disrupted by evacuation. Other lives were ended, horrifically, and their families struggled to find meaning and carry on. First responders fell ill. And ordinary life was hard to restore.

States can also deploy terror, as Jacobins proved in the French Revolution. They can use it to press submission on conquered populations, but they also use it against their own citizens. Here, too, the target is ordinary life, but states can aspire not just to disrupt but to dominate, to bend and structure ordinary life to their purposes.

The Future Of Ordinary Life

Terrorism is an ugly tactic. It’s particularly hard for democracies to address because authoritarian police responses are generally repugnant and damage or destroy the very democracy they are meant to protect. In contemporary Turkey, protecting democracy seems no longer to be part of the government’s goal. Terrorism has helped to push Russia towards more authoritarian rule, though it is hardly the only influence. And it may yet do something similar in the West.

The rise of Western democracy and liberal culture reflected the idea that ordinary happiness is morally good. This gave economic prosperity a moral purpose ― one we’ve largely forgotten in thinking that growth and profits are ends in themselves.

A key bulwark of defending democracy remains the capacity of citizens to thrive in ordinary life. Valuing ordinary happiness doesn’t ensure democracy; it’s only a condition. But 40 years of economic and social changes have undermined local communities, employment, the link between education and social mobility, and the national sense that burdens are shared in order to create a common future. New technologies have transformed personal life and large-scale organizations but not done much for social cohesion or shared culture. Globalization has been managed to secure profits much more than to provide security of ordinary life. The ability of government institutions to provide needed services efficiently has been compromised. Now terrorism challenges the physical safety to go out on a Saturday night.

We need to go out. We need the freedom to build personal friendships. We also need a public life that involves mixing with others different from ourselves.

Yet we need to go out. We need the freedom to build personal friendships. We also need a public life that involves mixing with others different from ourselves. This means going to places like Borough Market. Inequality makes this a freedom available to some. Democracy would be advanced – indirectly ― if greater equality meant more citizens could participate. It would be advanced if more felt economically as well as physically secure.

Beyond face-to-face mixing, we need media that help us understand our societies and our fellow citizens. Perhaps these will also deepen our understanding of big issues we face, but just knowing each other, and knowing a common culture together are vital for democracy. Politics has become too much a matter of polarized camps hurling insults and, often, cynical distortions at each other ― an enemy not a friend of trust ― partly because different groups of citizens barely know each other.

Terrorism threatens Western democracy not by the number of people it kills, but by the possibility it can undermine the trust, sense of security, and optimism on which thriving ordinary life depend. If this happens, terrorism will not be the only cause.



Deadly Terror Attack In London