London -- Sunday July 24 2005
Hope and fear in the city The laws and principles that enshrine liberty must be maintained if terrorism is to be defeated
Thursday. A man moves through a tube station. His CCTV image suggests a handbag-snatcher, but this thief's alleged haul of choice is human lives. A bombing mission has ended in failure or, as politically correct teachers are now being urged to say, deferred success. The attackers are planning to come back.
The capital's biggest manhunt is on. Police seeking four would-be assassins shoot dead a man running for a train. Suddenly, shoppers, children and commuters are actors in a Tom Clancy fantasy that has usurped the lives of a city and its inhabitants. It is hard to pin a single mood on seven million people, so the media have two labels: fear or defiance. Neither sounds right to me.
Tube passengers who smelled smoke and heard a detonator crack were as panic-stricken as anyone staring at their potential death would be. Parents whose children were on an end-of-term outing felt anxious. Office workers facing another long walk home flicked between reports of the attempted bombings and the Test match. At the National Theatre, a slightly depleted audience watched Henry IV Part Two and heard Prince John berating the rebels of Yorkshire for fomenting religious war 'under the counterfeited zeal of God'. It sounded like a rerun of the television news.
Though Thursday's attacks on London do not suggest a war, the warped panache of copycat assailants striking exactly 14 days after the bombings that killed 56 marks a macabre shift. Once may be an aberration; twice is a campaign that crushes soothing myths.
Even after 7 July, terrorists were credited with a modest wishlist. A city brought to a halt, a slump in trade, pervasive worry. All these sacrificial offerings might slake a predator's desires. But the attackers were never going to be sated by long delays on the Metropolitan Line or a bad sales day at BhS. Nor did they hope to see the fear of innocents corrode into an echo of their own mistrust, xenophobia and hate. Instead, they wanted blood and sorrow in greater quantities than anyone had dreamed.
No wonder carrying on as normal sounds more hollow, given the unfolding horrors in London and now Egypt. Normality, the buzzword of politicians who live abnormal lives, is really a pseudonym for necessity. People take the Tube because they have to, not because they think the negligible but rising risk that they might never emerge alive must be sublimated to national morale.
And so we set off, bolstered by hope or superstition. Avoiding the rear upper deck of buses, the bombers' seats, is usual now. It is a game we play, like children never stepping on the cracks between paving stones, for fear of being eaten by a lion.
Meanwhile, the authorities are not carrying on at all as normal. Chief constables want powers to hold suspects for three months without charge. Shooting to kill may have been officers' only option last Thursday, but, suddenly, today's south London and yesterday's south Armagh seem not so very far apart.
Of police chiefs' 11 new demands, many are sensible. Using the internet to plan terrorism should be illegal, setting up a specialist border security agency is a good idea, and admitting phone-tap evidence in court is long overdue. Holding suspects for three months without charge is another matter.
That penalty, the equivalent of a six-month jail sentence, would be swiftly overturned by the European Court of Human Rights. The current limit of 14 days has been in force only since 2000, when its inclusion in the Terrorism Act suggested it was the maximum time the court would wear.
Civil liberties are not the only reason to be wary. Recent eulogies to Ted Heath did not dwell on his disastrous decision to allow internment without trial in Northern Ireland, despite a warning from the army that it would bolster support for the IRA. Though there is no community to idolise a Muslim variant of Bobby Sands, there is plenty of discontent to coalesce round manufactured martyrs.
How great is the threat? The second bombings destroyed any idea that the murderers of 7 July were, like horsemen of the apocalypse, a one-off quartet. Other assumptions are being demolished fast. Perhaps shadowy monsters from Islamabad are brainwashing our young men, as politicians would like to think, but it is time to explore whether Britons are the proactive ones, shopping the world for mentors who can alchemise their loathing into bombs.
It is time, too, to drop the pretence of easy solutions. Expecting moderate leaders and imams to solve the problem alone may not be much more plausible than thinking Harold Shipman could have been dissuaded from murdering old ladies by a homily from the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In a climate of denial and futile hopes, people have had enough of being told whether they should be afraid or stoical. They want a way forward that will spare them the necessity of being either. First, what not to do.
Campaigning, as the Sun did, to ban Tariq Ramadan is barmy, since progressive Muslim scholars are exactly what Britain needs. Arguing, as ministers do, that Iraq has nothing to do with our vulnerability is absurd. If the coalition had secured Afghanistan and pursued known terrorists rather than launching a sideshow in Iraq, then many nations would be safer today. Instead, the war nurtured old assailants and bred new ones.
But the time for what-ifs is long gone. The lesson for a nation mourning 52 people slaughtered by bombers is to remember that Iraq's civilian death toll stands at almost 25,000. If terrorism unleashes human empathy, use it against the bloodshed in Baghdad as well as London. The presence of British troops may antagonise jihadis, but until there is evidence that their withdrawal would not provoke a bloodbath, we must stay.
How can we protect ourselves? Reform an intelligence service so out of touch it might be staffed by Martians. Abolish the state's links with faith. Neither Christians nor Muslims can any longer afford the segregation imposed by an established church and 7,000 religious schools.
Of the instant measures, none is magical. Extra security and resources for policing might help. So will the Home Office's calm responses, as opposed to the more excitable tendencies of Downing Street. Citizens, as always, will turn the unthinkable into a low-level irritant, not because they are the stormtroops of resistance but because there is no other way to live.
But carrying on as normal does not just imply swaying into work on crowded buses, or bringing parties of children into mainline stations for summer outings to museums. It does not only mean getting back to reading Dan Brown on the tube, rather than counting bomb-sized rucksacks.
Being normal means being free. And that, in turn, involves ensuring that the laws and principles which enshrine liberty are not overturned in the months to come. Freedom, unless it gets squandered in the name of fear or defiance, will endure long after this fragile, rootless hate campaign has burned itself to ashes.