Leading article: We must not allow this atrocity to undermine our open society

Share

"It is important," declared a visibly rattled Prime Minister from Gleneagles, before returning to London, "that those engaged in terrorism realise that our determination to defend our values and our way of life is greater than their determination to cause death and destruction to innocent people in a desire to impose extremism on the world".

A degree of political hyperbole is understandable on these occasions - although it was noticeable that the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, projected a more sober and better pitched tone in the Commons yesterday morning. But Tony Blair was undoubtedly right in asserting British determination not to be thrown by such attacks and, in being pictured with the other leaders attending the G8 summit, reminding the world that "each of the countries around the table have some experience of the effects of terrorism". Unlike the Irish campaign, Britain is this time facing a threat that is not peculiar to us nor unprecedented.

Nor, whatever one's feelings about the invasion of Iraq, would it be right for Britain to take its decisions about the future of its troops there on the basis of this attack on its citizens back home. The invasion of Iraq was a mistake. It has helped to radicalise the Middle East and much of the Islamic world against us. But the policy towards that country now cannot be determined by fear of the bomb.

None the less, this is a time for measured consideration as much as high-flown emotion, however awful the casualties or the anger against those who have perpetrated them. The fact is that this was not just an attack designed to hurt, but a relatively sophisticated demonstration of the power of terrorist groups - whether al-Qa'ida or otherwise. In a carefully co-ordinated pattern of explosions both on the Tube and on the bus system, they were able to bring the whole city to a halt and gain maximum publicity at a time when the world's leaders were meeting in Britain, and London was celebrating its Olympic victory. The Prime Minister was forced to leave his meeting to return to London, his fellow leaders of the industrialised nations had to proceed without their chairman, and Parliament had to be convened to discuss the emergency.

It happened despite the constant warnings by security experts that such an assault was in the offing, particularly after the Madrid bombings of March last year, and despite the efforts of the security forces to prevent it. In the event, the preparations of London's emergency services appear to have coped well. Well-laid plans were swung quickly into motion, the Tube was evacuated, bus were journeys were stopped and roads cut off. But it would be entirely wrong either to dismiss the planning behind the terrorist outrage or to underestimate the propaganda coup those behind it sought.

That is not in any way to hand the assassin the "victory" or to pander to his self-estimation. But in seeking to protect ourselves over the future, we must try to evaluate clearly the nature and the likelihood of the threat.

The immediate questions

One immediate question is obviously whether the authorities were right to take quite so long in releasing any information about the incidents or the likely scale of the casualties. They were clearly anxious to avoid panic. But with so phlegmatic a people as the British, and Londoners especially, a policy of openness is often the better course and might actually have prevented some of the traffic chaos and civilian confusion that reigned for several hours in the nation's capital. Nor did the financial centre, which had behaved so well when the IRA bombed the Stock Exchange, cover itself in glory this time, rushing to sell off shares and close bank branches. There is a careful balance to be struck between due caution in the face of such atrocities and ensuring that life proceeds normally. The authorities need to look in due time at this incident to see whether the right balance was eventually struck.

In a deeper sense, however, we must try to understand better the forces we are up against. Categorising the situation as a "war against terror", or talking in terms of facing an attack on democracy and "what we hold dear in this country and in other civilised nations throughout the world" (to use the Prime Minister's words) is tempting but unhelpful. Our invasion of Iraq took the war to the Middle East, not the other way round.

Still less is it useful to use such terms as an excuse for introducing ever more restrictive controls on immigration or the freedoms of ours own citizens. ID cards did not prevent the Madrid bombings, and it has yet to be proved that they would have done so in London's case. Locking up suspects without the right of a trial and placing them under detention or control for indefinite periods does nothing to improve our security and much to antagonise individuals and communities.

The terrorist threat comes obviously from international terror organisations - although it is far from clear that al-Qa'ida is anything like the centralised force it is often depicted as - but also from home-grown and quite localised groups who may or may not be drawn to violence. One of the most important questions that the police and security forces will have to determine in the coming months is whether these attacks were from international or national sources.

The right response

Yet in doing so, Britain must be careful not to radicalise groups here or drive its own citizens to sympathise with extremists by seeming to blame whole sections of society, and to bear down on them. The primary aim of extremists in these attacks is not to undermine British society as such or to "cow us", as Tony Blair would have it. It is to demonstrate across the news channels of the world, and Arab TV in particular, that they have the capacity to bring one of the world's great cities to a halt and to "punish" Britain for its invasion of Iraq. Against the might of Western arms, they wish to show their brethren that they have the means and ability to strike back. The secondary aim is to produce a repressive reaction that will produce new converts to the cause.

The most effective way of dealing with this threat is through prevention, by first-class intelligence and dogged police work. The worst response is to play into the hands of the terrorist. London won its Olympics bid on a pitch that emphasised its multiculturalism, its tolerance and its openness to the outside world. We must not lose this as we react to this outrage, however abominable it is.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

General Election 2015: What on earth happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions