Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
June 5, 2017

London and a Fake Suicide Vest

Armed police stand over what is believed to be a suspect shot at the scene of a terror attack outside Borough Market in central London on June 3, 2017. A van ploughed into pedestrians and several people were stabbed in London on Saturday, leaving at least 20 casualties in what police called a "terrorist" attack days before a general election. Armed police opened fire during two "terrorist incidents" at London Bridge and nearby Borough Market, a popular nightspot teeming with bars. / AFP PHOTO / Gabriele SCIOTTO

A sad fact about terror attacks is that they tend to look numbingly familiar. The venue might be a passenger station, an arena or a club, or a popular urban destination, but the sequence is the same. In the first minutes and hours, we see cell phone footage that captures the bedlam and first responders locking things down. Almost as quickly, wire agencies move photos of the dead or injured, as well as survivors fleeing for safety. By the next day, we tend to see Facebook photos of victims as well as perpetrators, and scenes of impromptu public memorials and grief vigils.

The event in London Saturday night, however, did yield an unusual photo, one that has a point to make about the city and country, about the scale of this attack, and about terror as a tactic.

As far as we know, what happened Saturday night had nothing to do with detonators, explosive contraband, the danger of laptops on airplanes, or a complex arrangement of operatives and safe houses. It did not appear to be the work of international masterminds or the bogeyman, ISIS. Instead, this involved three guys imbued with a corrupted version of Islam armed with a van and hunting knives.

Which brings me to the photo above. It was taken by a photographer who, having just left a pub, happened onto the street where the police were overwhelming the attackers. In the foreground, we see one of the three assailants who has just been shot dead. What’s most curious is that he’s wearing a fake suicide vest, something he might have created based on a five minute trip to the neighborhood art supply store.

The vest has been noted consistently in the news reports but hardly commented on. Was it to aid a getaway, believing the police would be more hesitant in the face of greater lethality? Perhaps the intent was simpler though — to just traumatize people that much more.

Just think about the symbolic power that object holds. Mowing citizens down with a van and then running through bars on a Saturday night, knifing as many people as possible, is undeniably horrific. As a threat to to England and to western civilization, though, it does have a different nature to it than blowing entire blocks of people and property to bits.

Yes, more details are pending as the city attends to its losses. Immediately obvious, though, was the impressive fortitude of the Londoners in the face of the attack and the thoughtful way in which they calibrated its dimension. The contrast between that comprehension and Donald Trump’s divisive, self-serving, one-size-fits-all reaction only heightens that British poise. The biggest threat of this attack — the one Trump instantly failed — was the potential to create outsized effects on the cheap. If this event had happened in the U.S., or the British media had spun it up the way America’s did, the terrorists would have been reinforced.

How lethal this event was compared to 7/7, for example, or the Nazi blitz, for that matter, was not lost on Londoners at all. (And neither was it spilt.) Thank goodness the British were so experienced and clear-eyed. In America, terrorists have a much greater advantage, no matter if they are really small time operators, home grown or immigrants, or their suicide vests are paper mâché.

— Michael Shaw

(photo: Gabriele Sciotto/AFP/Getty Images. Daily News caption: Gabriele Sciotto snapped this photo of a man appearing to wear canisters strapped to his waist after being shot by police outside Borough Market.) Getty caption: Armed police stand over what is believed to be a suspect shot at the scene of a terror attack outside Borough Market in central London on June 3, 2017. A van ploughed into pedestrians and several people were stabbed in London on Saturday, leaving at least 20 casualties in what police called a “terrorist” attack days before a general election. Armed police opened fire during two “terrorist incidents” at London Bridge and nearby Borough Market, a popular nightspot teeming with bars.)

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