Now that the dust is beginning to settle on the tragic events of Wednesday last week (22 March 2017) at Westminster Bridge and just inside the Parliamentary estate, let’s look at the crisis management employed by UK authorities following the attack.
The facts: a 52-year-old man who was brought up as Adrian Russell Elms, but was also known as Adrian Ajao and then changed his name to Khalid Masood, drove a car at high speed along the pavement on Westminster Bridge, killing four pedestrians and injuring around 50 others.
Elms/Ajao/Masood crashed his vehicle in front of Parliament Square, got out and ran through the open Carriage Gates into the Square and fatally stabbed an unarmed police constable, Keith Palmer, before being shot dead by a minister’s bodyguard who happened to be waiting nearby.Watching the subsequent events unfold on television, I was struck that the authorities almost immediately declared this was a ‘terrorist attack’, propelling an already huge global story still higher.
Predictably, so-called Islamic State was only too happy to claim this loner as a “soldier” – and an act of violence was quickly repackaged by politicians and most of the media as an all-out attack on western democracy, with shades of the 9/11 or 7/7 massacres.
When something horrific and deeply shocking happens, it is easy to be caught up in the moment. A Daily Telegraph online report, for instance, began with the words: “It was the terrorist attack that police and security services always feared, but hoped would never happen.”
When she eventually emerged after hours of silence, Prime Minister Theresa May said: “We will never give in to terror; we will never allow hate and fear to drive us apart.”
And a BBC journalist, seemingly anxious to please, said that Home Secretary Amber Rudd had made it very clear that this was NOT a security failing, as if that was simply the end of the matter.
When did TV journalists stop questioning what politicians say to them?
Crisis Management Employed by UK Authorities
From a crisis management perspective, how clever really was it for the authorities to plant firmly in the public mind’s the idea that this was an act of “terrorism”?
Let’s remember that, by definition, a “terrorist” is “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”.
What were Elm/Ajao/Masood’s political aims? Did he even have any? And how could the UK authorities so confidently brand him a “terrorist” before they even knew his identity?
As hours turned to days following the tragedy, a curious picture emerged of Adrian Russell Elms/Ajao, aka Khalid Masood. He was born in Erith, Kent, in 1964, was popular at school but suffered some racist remarks. He turned to acts of violent crime, for reasons unknown, although he was known to take large quantities of drugs.
He picked up his first conviction, for criminal damage, aged 18, and in July 2000, he slashed a man’s face with a knife.
He was jailed for two years for that offence, and three years later was in trouble again, stabbing a man in the nose in Eastbourne, almost killing him, for which he was sent back to jail for six months.
In short, he was a drug-abusing thug.
All of these offences were unpleasant and nasty. But none of them were acts of terrorism. They were not politically motivated.
It is known that Elms/Ajao changed his name to Khalid Masood and converted to Islam, but, given his propensity to violence and the lack of stability in his character, it is pure supposition that his vendetta against the world and people in general was politically motivated. Perhaps in his drug-warped, twisted mind, he just wanted to die infamous. He certainly wouldn’t be the first crank to have that ignoble wish.
Recently, I was reading a 1970s magazine which I had chanced upon. It contained a feature about New York yellow taxi drivers in which one driver complained that coverage in the media resulting from a murder of or attack on a cabbie always inspired more violence against them and more murders by copycat nutcases. An interesting and true point.
Reporting violence breeds more violence.
By jumping to conclusions about Elms/Ajao/Masood, the UK police, Government and much of the media have simply made it more likely that more violent sociopaths will crawl out of the woodwork to make their callous bid for immortality.
But wanting to be dead and notorious is not a politically motivated act, merely one driven by madness, egotism and self-loathing.
Moving on to how the crisis was handled, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was wrong.
This crisis was very clearly a major failure of security, particularly by the police.
Why is it that a front-line police officer guarding one of the highest-profile targets in the world was unarmed?
I feel terribly sad for brave PC Keith Palmer’s grieving family, but, in the final analysis, he was badly let down by his force and his country.
There is no way that any police officer guarding the Houses of Parliament should have been allowed on duty without a firearm or, at the very least, a Taser gun.
PC Palmer had neither with which to defend himself.
Indeed, remarkably, his role there seemed to be as much about posing for selfies with American tourists as defending the mother of Parliaments.
This is particularly disturbing. Parliament isn’t Disneyland, but Target Number One for screwballs.
Yet one deranged madman was able to make the Metropolitan Police look like The Keystone Cops. What is the point of having gates if you leave them open?
Anyone could have penetrated that pathetic level of security. Elms/Ajao/Masood was not even carrying a gun.These are the issues that Home Secretary Amber Rudd should have been addressing, rather than getting into arguments with internet company Whatsapp about encrypted messages.
As ever, political spin doctors are largely transactional in their approach to crisis management.
How ever bad a situation is, they look with great alacrity for someone else to blame.
Playing the culpability game may ameliorate immediate media coverage, directing editorial ire away from the police and the Home Office, but, ultimately, it will not save lives in the future.
Adrian Elms/Ajao/Mahood was an unhinged and dangerous character. Nothing would have prevented him from driving his car over pedestrians somewhere in the centre of London.
People on pavements are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of random carnage.
But he should not have been able to run onto the Parliamentary estate with knives slashing at a sitting-duck police officer. That is disgraceful.
Elms/Ajao/Mahood, who would look like an absurd character if he hadn’t killed five people, was as much a terrorist as Jack the Ripper or the Boston Strangler, both of whom certainly spread terror by their heinous crimes but were not politically motivated. Not terrorists.
In reality, the crisis management employed by UK authorities on this occasion was terrible.
Knowing that copycat crackpots are ten a penny, the Government, police and media all need to be more cautious in the way they respond to tragic events like those of last week.
It might have sounded moving and defiant to make out this was part of a war against a vast and ghost-like army of evil-doers, but when the truth was we had been caught out by a homicidal halfwit flying solo, a more informed and measured response to the crisis was warranted.
* This article is purely the view of the Brighton-based author who works in London and Sussex and is an expert in media relations, media training and crisis management and crisis communication training.