Are we a nation in denial? Four years ago, when the twin towers of New York were attacked, the consensus was that the world had changed. Yet, as time passed, we grew accustomed to the idea that nothing had really changed at all. That the threat of a terrorist attack on the London Underground was a scare got up to legitimise a "war on terror" being fought far away, or to buttress the authoritarian instincts of the Blair Government at home. That foreign holidays were "business as usual", albeit with slightly more intrusive security checks.
This month's bombings and attempted bombings in London, and the attack on a tourist resort in Egypt, constitute a form of reality therapy. We do have to make a fundamental adjustment to the threat from a new kind of terrorism. What is different this time is the use of suicide as a weapon. That does make the threat peculiarly difficult to meet, even if our intelligence and police work were as good as they could possibly be. Which makes it all the more important to defeat the root causes of this terrorism, rather than simply to try to defend against it.
Yet too many people refuse to face up to reality - at several levels. It is naïve and wrong to assert a direct causal link between Britain's invasion of Iraq two years ago and the bombs in London. Equally, though, it is naïve and wrong to assert that there is no link at all. The Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary appear to defy common sense when they insist that the Iraq war has not made London more of a terrorist target. It would have been more credible for Tony Blair to have accepted that the Iraq war heightened the risk of terrorism, but to say that he could not have turned away from what he thought was right for fear of a terrorist backlash. The bombing of Sharm el Sheikh certainly complicates the picture, because it seems unlikely that it was aimed specifically at British interests. But to deny any role for the Iraq war in recruiting jihadist terrorists is ridiculous. And insulting the intelligence of British Muslims is hardly the best way to begin the long and difficult task of persuading the minority within that community who support terrorism that they are wrong.
Politicians have also sought comfort in another means of avoiding reality, by subscribing to the nostalgic myth of the spirit of the Blitz, of Britons refusing to be intimidated, refusing to "change our way of life", refusing to be afraid. In his latest incarnation as the Churchill of local government, Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, has spoken stirringly of how London has endured bombs of various kinds before. Yes, the instinct of defiance is a life-affirming one. But it is not giving in to terrorism to be judiciously afraid, or to change one's behaviour on the basis of prudent calculations of risk. Those risks need to be kept in perspective. Any arbitrary death is heartbreaking, as was brought home by the moving scenes of the funeral of Anthony Fatayi-Williams, 26, yesterday. But we need to remember that the death toll in London on 7 July was a week's worth of death on the roads nationally. It is still much safer to travel by Tube than by car. Instead of saying that we will not allow the terrorists to change our lives, we should say that we will take sensible precautions where possible, but where it is not we will have to live with the risk. As Christian Wolmar concludes on page 17, it is just not possible to have "airport-style security" on the Tube. And, as the Foreign Secretary said yesterday, it is not for the Government to advise people where to go on holiday. It is up to us to weigh the - still extremely small - risks ourselves and decide.
The Government has more pressing obligations. Mr Blair needs to consider the balance of his foreign policy. Withdrawal from Iraq is not the answer - we must see through what we have wrongly started - but surely it would help persuade moderate Muslims of his even-handedness if he loudly condemned the abuse of Muslim prisoners by Americans at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib? It would help dispel Muslim perceptions of double standards, too, if Mr Blair were more forthright in insisting that British soldiers - and officers - accused of human rights abuses in Iraq will face justice and be seen to face justice.
We have all, from politicians through the security services to the general public, been slow to understand the motivations of and threat from the new terrorism, and the extent to which it has taken root in British soil. It is time to get real.Reuse content