Flowers adorn the memorial to the victims of the recent van attack in TorontoFlibirigit

On Monday 23rd April, a man killed ten people and injured 14 by driving a van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto. Public reactions in the immediate aftermath were as predictable as they were dichotomous.

Faction A immediately identified immigrants and Islamists as the as-good-as-guaranteed perpetrators while shouting about not liking refugees. Faction B was equally fast to anticipate faction A and to roundly condemn them, while arguing that the only acceptable course of action for the ordinary citizen was to keep calm and carry on.

Faction A’s point is: we must be incredibly angry at immigrants and at those letting them in. Faction B says: we must be sad, not angry, so never ask questions or seek to place blame. There are of course serious problems with both of these approaches.

Figuring out the best response to terrorist attacks is immensely difficult; unsurprisingly, it is a hotly contested issue, and there exists no complete answer. But there are some things we should definitely not do.

It is wrong when well-meaning voices attempt to establish rules for politically correct emotions

Terror has many faces. We should not pick a random segment of the population and pin blame without knowing facts. Some attacks are linked to religious fundamentalism, others are motivated by completely different ideologies. Other attackers seem to lack any organised ideology at all and commit acts of individual hatred. The Toronto attack seems to have stemmed from an online misogynistic movement. Terrorists are drawn from members of all sorts of races, faiths, and genders.

With this in mind, we should not be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions. With a rise of racism and anti-religious sentiment in the public eye it has become common among those generally protective of human rights to escape difficult issues, particularly surrounding religious motivation for violence, by labelling such questions as “far-right”. The truth is that in order to fight terror we have to be prepared to ask all questions – at all times and in all places, but certainly at universities, which constitutionally should be about limitless inquiry. It is at least comforting that in 2015 the Oxford and Cambridge Unions avoided Theresa May’s statutory guidance on denying non-violent extremists a platform, but the universities themselves remain constrained by Prevent to this day.

We should not be afraid to ask uncomfortable questions

Discussing how ideological violence emerges is impossible if we allow ourselves to be paralysed into passivity by a fear of appearing too Trumpian. As such, the third pillar of our approach must be opposing attempts to police each others’ emotions. A knee-jerk racist, randomly aggressive response to the news of a terrorist attack is vile. But the fact that racists are sometimes angry does not make anger categorically wrong. Katie Hopkins’ problem isn’t that she is angry, it is that she blames people without proof. This is not the only alternative to totally passive, ‘let-others-deal-with-it’ blandness.

A terrorist attack is a horrific thing, and while some may be able to observe it with total detachment, many others have no desire to do so. While policy-makers in the process of policymaking must be guided by rationale only, citizens in the immediate aftermath of violence are perfectly entitled to rage, whether or not they are personally connected to an attack. Attempting to force people into feeling nothing but passive sadness is illiberal, misguided, and pointless.


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The dividing line in the realm of terrorism is not between those who feel anger in reaction to violence and those who do not. It is between those who commit it, and those who do not. The second group would do well to stand together in solidarity, rather than fighting about appropriate levels of fury or politically correct emotions. It is often said that anger is what terrorists want to produce, but this is not the case. They want to produce division. By policing each other’s feeling we are indeed helping them.

This is why it is wrong when well-meaning voices attempt to establish rules for politically correct emotions. “Do not react with anger,” they say. “Be sad, be shocked, be incredulous. But never angry.”

I do agree. When a van drives into pedestrians, we should not be angry. We should be furious.

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