This is an extraordinary documentary on how a human being can change role depending on circumstances. It could really challenge some of your assumptions; it did mine.
John Crilly … ‘It doesn’t fit their narrative, heroes also being convicted murderers.’ Photograph: Channel 4
The Guardian August 24th 2023 Rachel Aroesti Review
“Is murder ever justified? Can a killer be a hero? These interviews with the men who used narwhal tusks to tackle a terrorist in 2019 grapple with huge moral questions
London Bridge: Facing Terror review – the documentary asking us to cast off lazy assumptions about killers
Can a murderer be a hero? Is killing ever justified? What are the limits of compassion? Can people really change? London Bridge: Facing Terror certainly doesn’t shy away from the big questions. As it combs through the details of Usman Khan’s 2019 attack at Fishmongers’ Hall, this documentary – narrated primarily by three men who acted swiftly and courageously to bring the violence to an end – sets out to complicate stereotypical ideas about criminals, victims and onlookers who come to the rescue.
Complicated is also how the programme ends up – not always in the best way – but a certain amount of confusion was probably inevitable: we are not dealing with a crime that can easily be repackaged into a neat morality tale. The attack began at a celebratory event for Learning Together, an organisation that attempted to help prisoners reintegrate into society. Khan, who was on licence from HM Prison Belmarsh where he had served time for terror offences, spoke publicly there about how he had benefited from the scheme. Afterwards, he went into the toilets, taped knives to his hands and strapped on a suicide belt (later discovered to be fake), before murdering Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones, two young Cambridge graduates who were working at the event, and running out on to London Bridge, where he was eventually killed by police.
The reasons Khan did this are not explored here. Rather, the film is about the myriad reactions to his attack, and the acres of moral grey area that surround the incident. Two of the three men who stopped Khan – using a fire extinguisher and two narwhal tusks that were displayed in the building – had served time for murder: John Crilly was an ex-prisoner and Steven Gallant, who had been granted day release to attend, was 14 years into a life sentence. They were joined by Darryn Frost, who worked for the Ministry of Justice. This year, all were awarded gallantry medals in the Queen’s final awards list.
‘It doesn’t fit their narrative, heroes also being convicted murderers,’ says Crilly. They being the press and the public they cater to. Except it turns out that Crilly had never killed anyone: he was deemed responsible for a death due to a misinterpretation of the joint enterprise law and has since had his conviction quashed. Gallant, however, did, so the moral dilemma applies more pertinently to him, as does the idea that good deeds can cancel out bad ones: in 2021, he was released from prison early thanks to his actions during the attack.
Then there is Frost, in a sense the most controversial hero of the three. Having helped Crilly and Gallant apprehend Khan on the bridge, Frost then took it upon himself to become the killer’s protector, defending him from Crilly, who was hitting him with one of the knives, and also the police once they arrived on the scene. He considered Khan to be at this stage a “restrained defenceless man” (albeit one still claiming to have a bomb). He was, he says, trying to save Khan’s life.
At least, that is how this programme tells it. The government literature about the gallantry medals says that “when the armed police repeatedly shouted at Mr Frost to move, he refused as he was preventing the attacker from moving his hands towards the device”. Maybe Frost’s compassion was too radical to feature in a royal celebration of heroism. Or maybe the truth is too nuanced for either medium to convey accurately.
It’s certainly hard to know what to think about many of the quandaries touched on here: did Khan have to die? Should we celebrate Gallant? How do we risk assess convicted terrorists? That is mainly because the programme merely posits these problems, rather than interrogate or debate them, and the lasting impression is that of an overwhelming moral muddle. Perhaps that is the point. London Bridge: Facing Terror is not promoting any particular argument, but instead asks us to cast off lazy assumptions and recognise that beyond the kneejerk moral judgments we gravitate towards, the reality is incredibly – sometimes repulsively – knotty. Even the concept of terrorism is handled with unusual ambivalence, with the Rev Paul Tyler, who met Khan as a prisoner, claiming that labels mean we can get away without asking: “Have these people got a grain of truth in their critique of the west?”
There is one figure, however, who doesn’t receive such treatment. Soon after the attack, the then-prime minister Boris Johnson used the incident to campaign for harsher sentencing for terrorists. This, says Dave Merritt – whose account of losing his son in the attack is unbearably sad – ‘was the opposite of what Jack believed’. Considering that would have been obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with the circumstances, it seems an act of political opportunism that goes beyond flagrantly cynical into wilfully nasty territory. Indicative, in other words, of a character even this even-handed documentary can’t help but villainise.”
Interview with the wife of Barrie Jackson – the man Steve Gallant killed – not knowing it was Steve Gallant, she’s posted news pictures of their battle to restrain the terrorist.