The Straits Times says

Public sensibility in the face of terror

There is a crucial difference between living in terror and living with terror. The first state of existence is what every terror group and demented lone wolf seeks to impose on communities after they have struck an iconic target. The more famous or more frequented the venue, the stronger the determination of madmen to launch an attack there, which could amount to a direct strike at the very heart of a nation. That was clearly the intent of the assailant behind the "marauding terrorist attack", as described by police, close to the Palace of Westminster, the ancient seat of the British Parliament. The stately structure and Big Ben are, after all, known around the world; and Westminster, with its 900 years of history, is synonymous with a parliamentary system adapted by many countries. What's more, the attacker picked a moment when the Parliament's Lower House of Commons was in session.

Living in terror paralyses the spirit. But living with terror is a call to shake off the ever-tightening noose dangled by terrorists. The latter is a state of mind that accepts the reality of the resident evil, guards against risks, and does whatever it takes to keep life flowing as normal. That was what British Prime Minister Theresa May signalled in saying that Parliament would convene as normal, despite the high alert that security services were put on. The incident was unnerving but London remained calm after the single attacker stabbed a police officer to death and killed others when he drove his car into the nearby crowds.

Predictably, questions have been raised about the adequacy of security provided for the Parliament buildings. Police barriers and patrols typically spring up immediately after an act of violence. But on a normal day, it might be less obvious that counter-terrorist measures have been carefully spun and rehearsed - evident in the quick response of policemen who shot the terrorist after he broke through the first police cordon; and in the speedy arrival of the first ambulances: within three minutes. Still, some observers discerned gaps in the defences - a reflection of the never-ending nature of the work that is entailed.

Living with terror is a public sensibility that must pervade all sections of society: building owners, event organisers, business operators, people on the move, and those living in an area. That means cultivating situational awareness so that one can spot risks in accessible spaces, cooperate with those providing security services, and shape contingency plans should disruptions arise out of the blue. For all, including Singaporeans, preparedness can help mitigate the physical ill-effects of a malicious attack. As important are psychological and social defences that can help people to reflexively pull together, despite the messages of hate and fear that terrorists weave calculatedly by targeting the nation's beloved icons.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2017, with the headline 'Public sensibility in the face of terror'. Print Edition | Subscribe