On terrorists, gallows humour, and Godzilla.
I was on the other side of the globe when three terrorists drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge in 2017. The men had wanted to use a 7.5 tonne lorry, but a bureaucratic hiccup involving payment for the truck prevented that additional level of carnage. The men filled their smaller van with Molotov cocktails, armed themselves with 12-inch kitchen knives, and set off to murder innocent people. Their van broke the bodies of dozens of pedestrians, killing two, before they leapt out and started hacking at anyone they could reach with their knives. By the time these cowards were shot dead, they’d killed eight people and injured forty-eight more.
News of the attack reached me across the Atlantic Ocean via social media, where reactions came as they always do – fast and unfiltered. But there was something a little different here, a twist in the usual recipe: many of the reactions from my fellow Brits, especially those who lived in London, seemed to make light of what had happened. One user of what was then called Twitter posted what was then called a tweet reading:
“Woman on CNN talking about London’s streets being eerily quiet. Mate, it’s Sunday. They’re not cowering in fear, they’re having a lie in.” (@merseytart)
In response to the herd-language used by American media outlets suggesting Londoners were “reeling” from the attack, author Jojo Moyes tweeted:
“Nothing makes Brits more resolutely determined to ‘get on with things’ than hysterical commentators trying to suggest we’re reeling.”
This launched a thousand tweets indicating things that truly leave Brits reeling, from “Not catching someone’s name and having to spend the next three decades avoiding introducing them to anyone” (@SarahRoseCrook) to “Knowing you’re walking in the wrong direction & having to tut & check your watch/phone before changing course” (@ContrarianCraig) to my favourite, “People pronouncing it scone, when it is actually pronounced scone” (@avfcmatches). However, nothing captured our defiant sense of humour like the man who exclaimed his own ironic battle cry before fighting the terrorists with his bare fists.
Roy Larner was having his fourth or fifth pint of the evening when the terrorists burst into the pub brandishing their knives. Larner got up and started punching them, fending them off even as they slashed at his hands, body, and neck. He managed to send them running off before police and medics arrived to tend to his wounds. This interaction on its own is the kind of thing that separates the ordinary from the heroic, but what distinguishes Larner as a true Brit is what he said to the terrorists. When they first ran into the pub, the three men were screaming, “Islam! Islam!” and “This is for Allah!” Larner thought, I need to take the piss out of these bastards. He stood up and shouted back, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” asserting his own religious allegiance to a football club.
Some of the people where I was living at the time, unversed in the irony of the British Isles, were unsettled by this jovial insistence on not taking the attack seriously. A few of them thought it was distasteful. One of them ventured the brow-furrowed, catch-in-the-throat cliché that “some things just shouldn’t be joked about”. I attempted to elucidate the quip-making of the English in the face of adversity but, of course, nothing kills a joke like explanation. In the end, it was as simple as what Roy Larner told himself in the face of those murderers: we felt the need to take the piss out of those who would have us afraid. We transformed horror into comedy.
Imagine you step into an elevator, blissfully ignorant that your life is about to change as the result of a mechanical failure. You ascend two, three, four floors, humming an irritating tune that won’t leave your head, when suddenly the elevator shudders, groans, and then thunk – comes to a total stop. You look for an emergency button that you press calmly once, more urgently twice, then hammer over and over, but it does nothing. You’re trapped in a metal box suspended 100 feet over concrete for ten minutes, sweating and panicked, until the elevator shudders and rises the remaining few feet to your floor. When the doors open, you fall out of the elevator, wanting to clutch at the carpet and never let go.
Now out of harm’s way, you can’t bring yourself to get back on that elevator. Another day, at a different elevator, you feel the spreading damp of sweat in your armpits, a lurch in your stomach, so you take the stairs instead. You avoid all elevators and tremble thinking of them: you have developed a severe elevator phobia. This example is given by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in their 2015 clarion call against the “coddling of the American Mind”. Avoidance, though protective in the short term, leads to greater problems in the future. As Lukianoff and Haidt write of their imagined elevatophobic woman, “If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.”
Exposure therapy, on the other hand, introduces the phobic person to the source of their fear in manageable doses. It’s a form of homeopathy that has the distinction of actually working. By reintroducing the sufferer to their trauma obliquely – presenting it in the guise of a metaphor, or at a remove from reality, placing it in a fantasy world – or by showing how others cope with the same kind of trauma, healing can occur. The broken bone is stronger at the mend, the tested heart more resilient. “The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway once noted, “and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
Great art – and sometimes mediocre art – can act as exposure therapy. From the safety of a reading chair, you can strengthen yourself against the shocks of life by rendering them a little less surprising. I’ve found my way through many personal crises with the help of novels, films, and music that helped me to face and transform what troubled me. If “escapism” protects you for a few hours from the pain of existence, then “art” is that which confronts that pain. The collective turn towards humour on the streets of London after the attack was a form of escapism – useful and transformative, but only part of a healthy attitude towards confronting trauma. At some point, the jokes stop and serious consideration can begin.
Art has a role to play in this confrontation with our brokenness, because the best of it has always given us a clear view of the world. Lukianoff and Haidt remind us that philosophers and artists have all “understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments”. As Alain de Botton puts it in The Consolations of Philosophy, art overcomes our claustrophobic subjectivity to show us more “objective versions of our own pains and struggles, evoked and defined in sound, language, or image”. He writes:
“Artists and philosophers not only show us what we have felt, they present our experiences more poignantly and intelligently than we have been able; they give shape to aspects of our lives that we recognise as our own, yet could never have understood so clearly on our own. They explain our condition to us, and thereby help us to be less lonely with and confused by it.”
My local theatre recently played the original 1954 Godzilla, which I’d never seen before. I came into the small, relatively packed cinema knowing that the film was an allegory for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; this turned out to be a stilted piece of black-and-white symbolism as lumbering as Godzilla itself. While the titular monster’s temper tantrums didn’t do much to wow me, I was fascinated with how the film went beyond exposure therapy and actually posed its Japanese audience an ethical challenge: to empathise with the Americans who’d unleashed atomic hell on them.
Dr Serizawa is Godzilla’s Oppenheimer figure, an internally conflicted scientific genius who discovers “a powerful force that scares [him] beyond words”. The implications of the carnage Serizawa’s discovery could unleash – and the power it might confer on those who wield it – are unashamedly meant to echo those of the atom bomb. Unlike Oppenheimer, Serizawa has no desire to reveal his invention to the world, for fear of what might happen if it were used nefariously, exclaiming, “As a scientist – no, as a human being – I cannot allow that to happen!”
His friends beg him to use it against Godzilla, asking, “What do we do about the horror that’s before us now?” This scene could have played out a decade earlier between American pacifists and advocates of the bomb arguing over how to confront what they saw as a monster attacking from the east. As Serizawa notes, “Humans are weak animals,” and the film highlights how fear of an approaching monster can make anyone resort to monstrosities. In different circumstances,Godzilla suggested to its Japanese audiences, you might have acted as the Americans did against you. Indeed, the climax of the film revolves around Serizawa having been convinced to use his terrible invention as a weapon against Godzilla.
Of course, there are things to be said about the way Godzilla tries to thread this ethical needle by having Serizawa sacrifice himself so the weapon can only be used once; there are critiques to be made against the film for creating a simplistic, truly evil monster for them to fight, offering precisely the kind of reductive strawman many Americans put in place of the truly complex enemy they saw in Japan. But the takeaway here is that Godzilla found a way to transform a trauma into a story and then into a moral dilemma.
Japanese audiences walked out of theatres largely unimpressed, and no doubt part of this was frustration at not being offered an escape. However, the film’s challenge has reverberated through the decades, resonating in new ways with new audiences. As I sat in my theatre watching Godzilla play out a world away from where it began, it made me think about which monsters I fear enough that I might be tempted to “go nuclear” against them. Godzilla shows that any of us can become the monster. One of the functions of art is to make that clear to us, so that we might overcome the impulsion towards tyranny. There’s a popular idea that art should “speak truth to power”, but I wonder if a more fundamental role of art is to speak truth to those who need to hear it.
All of this brings me back to the gallows humour in the face of that London attack, which did more, I now realise, than just give us a way to withstand fear. That humour was a rejection of the hateful nihilism that was its instigation. The suicide-murderers of jihadism claim to love death as we love life – and by embracing the good, the beautiful, and the hilarious of life we turn away from the evil, the ugliness, and the unironic in their cult of death. Our jokes are an affirmation of our humanity, just like our art. It tames and transforms our monsters.
• “London attack: Football fan shouted ‘F*** you, I’m Millwall’ and took on knife-wielding terrorists with bare fists”, in The Independent, Adam Lusher (2017)
• “The Coddling of the American Mind”, in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt (2025)
• The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton (2000)