London under attack

01.07.05 Publication:

London under attack

After the joy of winning the Olympics, evil came swiftly

ONCE it had happened, it produced an awful feeling of inevitability. The series of terrorist attacks on London´s Underground and bus system at the end of the morning rush hour on July 7th were presumably timed to coincide with the opening meetings of the G8 rich-country summit in Gleneagles in Scotland. The fact that less than a day earlier London had been filled with jubilation at having won the race to host the 2012 Olympic games may have given the perpetrators an extra dose of satisfaction. We shall never know, but nor, actually, should we care. Such a pointless display of brutality should instead bring forth two thoughts. One is that the surprise should be that this has not occurred sooner. The other is that such attacks should not, and will not, make any difference to the way Londoners live and work.

As soon as the atrocities of New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania took place on September 11th 2001, London was assumed to be at risk of attack. That was so both because of its status as an international financial centre, an epitome of the West and its capitalist ways, and because Britain has long been a close ally of the United States, enemy number one for al-Qaeda and its terrorist associates. That likelihood only grew following Britain´s participation in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and then the terrible bombing in Madrid on March 11th 2004. In recent years every senior British policeman, intelligence chief or home secretary you cared to ask about the probability of a terrorist attack gave a similar answer: 100%.

One theory as to why it has taken so long might be that al-Qaeda moves in a very measured, careful way: attacks are long in preparation and intermittent in nature. Yet there is much evidence to suggest that that notion, which became conventional wisdom after September 11th, may not be correct. The intelligence services in London say that they have thwarted quite a number of attacks in recent years, including a plot involving deadly poisons and another which had Heathrow airport as its target. Less encouragingly, they also offer unofficial estimates that Britain may be home to roughly 1,000 budding Islamist terrorists, or close supporters of them. Whatever the accuracy of either of those assertions, the general picture is one of repeated terrorist efforts rather than measured, intermittent ones, and of a fragmented, unco-ordinated set of terrorist groups rather than a cohesive effort.

The apparent leaders of that un-cohesive effort, those who are thought to be the central command of al-Qaeda, have anyway been in hiding and retreat. There is no way of knowing for sure, but it seems plausible given the number of arrests and killings of people said to be senior al-Qaeda officers—particularly in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East—that the group now has much less of an infrastructure than it did before September 11th and a central leadership that is much less commanding. What it does have, though, is a large group of sympathisers, some with extra levels of motivation since the Iraq war. George Bush has sometimes claimed that a silver lining to the cloud his forces are struggling through in Iraq is that at least the West´s enemies are being fought there rather than at home. The attacks in London are a reminder that that view is as wrong as it is glib.

What the attacks also show, however, is that well co-ordinated though the four explosions were, they were not terribly effective. Chance plays a big role in such attacks. The bombs in Madrid last year which killed 191 people might have killed many more had the station roof collapsed. The September 11th hijackings might have killed fewer than the eventual 2,752 had the twin towers of the World Trade Centre not melted down and collapsed. As The Economist went to press, the toll in the four London bombs was not clear, but the estimate of at least 33 deaths was thankfully far smaller than in Madrid. By the terrible calculus of terrorism, the attacks should thus be counted as a failure—a sign of weakness, not strength.

The tighter security that has been in place in London since September 11th may have contributed to that. No city, however, can stop terrorists altogether. What can be said, though, is that terrorists are unable to stop cities, either. Perhaps an army, launching wave after wave of attacks, might succeed in doing so, especially if it were to deploy biological, chemical or nuclear weapons. Short of that, cities will always bounce back quickly, after the initial shock. They are resilient organisms, with powerful social and economic reasons to shrug off terrorism. New York and Madrid both show that, triumphantly.

The same will certainly be true of London. Like all large modern cities it is vulnerable to disruption. Millions of people pour into or through the city every day, through its huge transport network, making it easy to identify places to plant bombs and propagate fear. But that also makes the city adaptable. And there is no doubt that the experience of being attacked is likely to make Londoners more determined to resume their normal lives, not less. That would be true even if London had not previously endured decades of attacks from Irish terrorists, but that history makes resilience an even safer bet.

Might the attacks affect Tony Blair´s ability to keep British troops in Iraq—presumably the terrorists´ goal, if they are indeed related to al-Qaeda? Again, the answer is that the attacks will either prove irrelevant to that policy or, in fact, strengthen both his resolve and his popular support. They may be irrelevant because there is anyway little political or popular pressure for withdrawal of the 8,500 troops that are still in Iraq, even though a majority now believes that the war was a bad idea in the first place. Casualties have been light ever since the end of the formal hostilities, the British are in a relatively calm area of the country, and the public seems to think they are doing a necessary job.

Far likelier, the attacks will reinforce the case for pressing on with the long-term task, as defined by Mr Blair: the establishment of a stable democracy in Iraq, peace between Israel and Palestine, and democratic reform elsewhere in the Middle East. If that sounds rather close to Mr Bush´s policy, that´s because it is. No terrorists can change that.