Among the statements a leader might make in the wake of a bloody, gut-wrenching terrorist attack is this: “It is impossible to fully comprehend the evil that would have conjured up such a cowardly and depraved assault.”
Or perhaps this: The attacks are “a declaration of war against the entire civilized world.”
Or, maybe: “We are all Americans.”
Those were the words of the Canadian and German heads of state, and a French newspaper headline, after the Sept. 11 massacre.
The London Bridge attack last weekend doesn’t compare in scope of lives lost and damage But there is something about the brutality of the assailants plowing into the crowd, stabbing bar and restaurant patrons at random, and the sheer repetition of assaults in Britain after years of relative quiet. This was the second terrorist attack in London in three months and the second in Britain in just two weeks.
The moment called for a response from President Donald Trump that expressed concern for the dead, the injured and their families. He could have praised the bravery of the British police, who took down the three terrorists within eight minutes. Trump might have expressed solidarity with our ally contending, as we are, with random, deadly acts. These atrocities are carried out to stoke fear in going on with our daily lives — in recent cases in Britain, people taking in the magnificence of the Thames River or swaying in Manchester to Ariana Grande’s beat.
Nine days after the Sept. 11 attacks, President George W. Bush said there were now two camps, and civilized people must choose. “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make,” he declared. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
After London Bridge, by inflaming division and fear, Trump traded in fear.
In the moments after the London assault began on Saturday, before facts were known, Trump retweeted a Drudge Report story saying a terrorist attack might be in progress. Never mind that, as president, he has more than a dozen intelligence agencies that could have provided more credible information than Drudge. Never mind that days earlier, he mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that a suicidal gambler’s casino robbery in the Philippines was a “terrorist attack in Manila.”
Facts aren’t as important to Trump as lighting up his base to roar for a travel ban. His initial tweet Saturday night concluded, “We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” Only afterward did he express solidarity with Britain.
By the next day, he was back to making political points of the tragedy, saying the mayor of London was underplaying the cause for alarm. Of course with a name like Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London could be suspect in Trump’s worldview. He took Khan’s words out of context and tweeted that the mayor was making a “pathetic excuse.”
Imagine how Americans would have reacted to being called pathetic after Sept. 11, or San Bernardino or Orlando. Calling out Khan is reminiscent of the Trumpians’ constant reminders during Barack Obama’s presidency that his middle name is Hussein.
Trump’s admirers appreciate the authenticity he displays when his Twitter finger twitches. However, in troubled times, what unites and divides us aren’t the defining characteristics of our birth. What connects us are the conscious choices we make: to side with the civilized or with the terrorists.
In times of terror, a real leader would remind us of this higher human bond.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.