As London contemplates what looks disturbingly like a sustained suicide bombing campaign by Islamic terrorists, the question of morale in the city takes on profound significance. Yet over the past fortnight, most of the media appears to have decided that Londoners are capable of only one emotion in the face of those who would brutally murder them. And that emotion is "defiance". We have been inundated with headlines and news stories replete with references to "defiant Londoners", "stoical commuters" and "the Blitz spirit". Any suggestion that Londoners might be experiencing a substantial amount of "fear" as well - as The Independent did on its "City of Fear" front page yesterday - is deemed at best slightly bad taste, and, at worst, treason. A glance at today's letters page is enough to confirm the strength of feeling on this.
The vehemence with which different interpretations of the mood of Londoners are criticised is troubling. The demand that all should respond in precisely the same manner is almost totalitarian in nature.
The truth is that talk of "defiance" is largely meaningless in this particular context. Both Tony Blair and the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, have requested that we carry on with our lives as usual. This is reasonable advice. But it is bizarre to "celebrate" when people do so. Those Londoners who are still making their morning Underground journeys to work, or taking the train to go shopping, are not, on the whole, performing a conscious act of "defiance" to the terrorists. They are doing what they feel they have to do. Most do not think they have a choice. The idea that Londoners should be congratulated for getting on with their daily lives despite the new threat is also somewhat patronising. What exactly was expected of them? Mass hysteria?
There seems to be a state of denial about the pervasive sense of fear that exists in London at the moment. The London Evening Standard's claim that "London Stands United" is all very well, and if it makes people feel better it is to be welcomed. But the common assertion that "London is not afraid" is simply untrue. The attacks on 7 July had a profound effect on the city's psyche. And the attempted second wave of bombings two days ago have cranked up the tension even further.
It has dawned on people that the first assault was not a one-off. The fact that the second batches of explosives were not properly detonated meant the bombers escaped. Londoners went to bed on Thursday night knowing that there were four desperate killers loose in the city. We still do not know if there was a link between the two attacks, but it is apparent that the aim of both groups was to kill and maim.
Londoners making their way to work yesterday were faced with sirens, helicopters and roads closed by the police. Then came the news that a suspected suicide bomber had been shot by armed police on a Tube train in south London. A raid on a house on the other side of the city followed; then a dramatic news conference in which the police revealed CCTV footage of those believed to be responsible for the latest attack. All this served to create a palpable perception of London being under siege. And the uncertainty over when the next attack will come is genuinely terrifying.
Comparisons with the Blitz and the IRA bombing campaign in the 1980s are easy to make, but misleading. Today Londoners do not have air raid sirens to warn them to take cover as they did when pounded by Hitler's Luftwaffe. Nor are they given telephone warnings, as in the period of Northern Ireland's Troubles. It also matters that Britain is not now faced with a foreign enemy - but a home-grown one. This creates a wholly different sense of insecurity. In truth, the nearest London has experienced to this sensation - the feeling that death could be about to strike without warning - was when V2 rockets began landing on the capital in towards the end of the Second World War.
It has been suggested that by showing fear we are somehow "playing into the hands" of terrorists, or "letting them win". This is a superficially convincing argument. The goal of terrorists is to create fear. And by refusing to show it, we could be said to be thwarting them. But this does not stand up to close scrutiny. Fear is a perfectly natural reaction. There is no shame in it. And the far more important question is how we are to respond to that fear. The real danger to our society is not fear but panic.
We would, obviously, urge individuals not to give way to panic. But they are perfectly entitled to make their own mind up about the risks facing them and alter their behaviour accordingly. Londoners should not be made to feel like cowards if they decide not to take the Tube for a while.
The Government must resist panic too. We do not require any immediate emergency legislation to counter the threat of extremist Islam. The most important task for the Government at present is to support the police and intelligence operation. The fact that these terror cells have broken cover means the police should find it easier to roll them up and arrest their leaders. We should never lose sight of the fact that this is - first and foremost - a criminal conspiracy to murder. Those implicated in these plots must be put on trial. However, the Government should immediately look into ways of toughening up security on London's transport system, since this is a glaringly vulnerable spot for the capital. At the very least this should mean CCTV cameras on Tube trains.
This is a serious and long-term problem for London. Life in the capital will be profoundly affected. One of the consequences will be a likely falling off in tourism - particularly long-term bookings from nations such as America and Japan. The Tourism Industry Emergency Response Group yesterday released research indicating that spending by overseas visitors in Britain may be 2 per cent below expectations for 2005. Since half of all foreign travellers come to London, this would represent a loss of £150m for the capital. It is also likely that fewer people will decide to shop in the centre of London, which will harm the retail trade. It is estimated that the second wave of bomb attacks has already reduced the number of shoppers in central London by more than a quarter compared with this time last year. If the bombs go on, we can expect this trend to continue. It is also distinctly possible that more people will demand to work from home, to avoid commuting into the city. All of these things could have profound implications for London's economy.
What the city needs now is sober reflection on the nature of the threat that is faced and how best to counter it. What London does not need is macho posturing and more meaningless talk of "defiance" in the face of the bombers. The city is perfectly capable of weathering this threat. But let us not pretend that the prospect of suicide bombers on our trains and buses is not intensely frightening. At this time we should recall the words of Mark Twain: "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear."Reuse content