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

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
The Israeli ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, has been dubbed ‘Bibi’s brain’  

Israel's propaganda machine is finally starting to misfire

Patrick Cockburn
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz