Joan Smith: The evidence indicates that political Islam hates our way of life, not our foreign policy

We have to stand up for our values, which means this time we are in for the long haul
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If you want to see the dozens of small ways a Labour government is better than A few years ago, the news that the UK was facing an imminent attack from Islamist terrorists bent on taking hundreds of lives would have put the entire country on edge. People would have changed their habits, avoiding public transport and walking to work, while the presence of armed police at British airports would have increased the general sense of jitters. As recently as two years ago, after the 7/7 bombings, I had friends who avoided crowded places, worked from home and spent a fortune on minicabs so they did not have to use the London underground.

Since the end of last week, when two car bombs were discovered and defused in Central London, life in the capital has continued pretty much as usual. At midnight on Friday, I travelled across London on a Piccadilly line train and was struck by the fact that it was as crowded as ever, in spite of the failed attempt to bomb a nightclub in the West End less than 24 hours earlier; rumours of a second failed attack were already circulating, but none of the revellers returning home seemed too worried. The next day a Gay Pride march went ahead in London, despite the fact that Islamic extremists loathe homosexual people as much as they do "slags" who go to nightclubs.

An obvious explanation for this stoical response is that both the London attacks were thwarted, which means that we were not confronted (as we were in 2005) with horrific images of injured civilians and tangled wreckage. All that changed with the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport, the third on the British mainland in 36 hours, when TV channels and newspapers carried dramatic pictures of a blazing Jeep and holidaymakers running for cover. Earlier this week, newspapers published photographs of a badly-burned man being arrested and taken to hospital, where he was said to be suffering 90 per cent burns; even though he was a suspect, the images were a dreadful reminder of the horrors terrorism can inflict. The swift response of the police, who have made arrests up and down the country, has not reduced the official threat level from "critical" and it is not clear yet how many suspects are still at large.

Of course we have been here before, those of us old enough to remember the IRA's terror campaigns in Northern Ireland and the mainland in the last century. I have a clear recollection of the night of the Birmingham bombings in 1974, when Irish terrorists planted devices in two crowded pubs in the city centre, killing 21 people and injuring 182; in a campaign that went on until the 1990s, pubs, law courts and barracks were targeted by Provisonal IRA cells operating in English towns and cities. In West London, rival factions of the IRA spent more than half a century trying unsuccessfully to destroy Hammersmith bridge since 1939, their most recent attempt taking place only seven years ago.

But there are significant differences between Republican terrorism and its Islamist counterpart, one of them being that while Irish bomb-makers sometimes blew themselves up by mistake, they were not nihilistic enough to resort to suicide-bombing. Their practice of phoning warnings ahead of attacks has even led some commentators to write nostalgically about the IRA, as though the scenes of carnage in The Mulberry Bush and The Tavern in the Town 33 years ago never happened. I don't feel comfortable with that kind of revisionism; I'm not sure there is a meaningful distinction between the IRA's ambition to recreate the conditions of war-torn Belfast in mainland city centres and last weekend's attempt to make parts of London and Glasgow resemble Baghdad.

The problem for terrorists of whatever origin is that human beings are much more resilient than most of us realise. Immediately after the hugely spectacular attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, there was a widespread feeling that nothing would ever be the same again. As the awesome scale of the destruction became apparent, it was hard for a time to think about anything else; I recall a poet of my acquaintance remarking on the impossibility of writing about such events, as though to do so would be a desecration of the dead. Six years on, there have been documentaries and movies about 9/11 - notably United 93, which recreated the flight of the plane which crashed near Philadelphia after passengers took on the hi-jackers - and novels such as Don De Lillo's Falling Man.

The need to make sense of horrific events is a profoundly human impulse, an essential part of finding a way to live beyond them. And that is what people do after the initial shock of a terrorist attack, when the national conversation about the plight of the victims and the risk of further bombings begins to subside. In 2001, Islamist attacks were still a novelty in the US and the UK though not in France, which was one of the first European countries to recognise the threat posed by political Islam. Now we are growing used not just to the existence of an Islamist terror network in Britain, consisting both of young men who were born here and others from Pakistan and the Middle East, but of the inchoate rage which fuels it.

In that sense, the events of recent days may well prove to be a turning point. Opposition to the war in Iraq has led many people in this country to sympathise with the grievances of radicalised Muslims, even after the 7/7 bombings, but it is hard to see that situation continuing much longer; it now looks as though al Qaeda sympathisers have begun recruiting doctors, who are trained to heal the sick, to kill and maim young people in nightclubs and families setting off on holiday. It is becoming harder to resist the evidence that political Islam hates not just British foreign policy but our way of life, which is why it targets places where people gather to enjoy themselves, women have the freedom to dance and drink, and gay couples might stroll past after a night out. The Islamists did it in Bali five years ago, bombing clubs full of European and Australian tourists, and they almost succeeded in doing it in London last week.

Ten years ago, Tony Blair came to power with a belief that his government would be able to cut a political deal with Republicans and Loyalists in Northern Ireland; protracted negotiations resulted in the Good Friday agreement, and the laying down of guns and bombs. That option does not exist with Islamic extremists, who want not just the withdrawl of British troops from Iraq but a whole raft of things - segregation of the sexes, sharia law, an end to secular culture - which we cannot negotiate away in the name of security. In recent days, watching people go about their business good-naturedly in London despite the threat of terrorist attacks, I have a sense that the public understands this. We have to stand up for our values, and that means that this time we are in for the long haul.

Deborah Orr is away