Behind the Lines: London in denial?

I was surprised at the relatively low-key atmosphere on the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings.

By
July 7, 2006 00:00
london bombing 298.88

london bombing 298.88. (photo credit: )

 
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Flying into London on the eve of the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings that killed 52 passengers on three Underground trains and a bus in the city center, I had expected widespread acknowledgment of the events and their implications, both on the streets and in the media. Instead, I was surprised at the relatively low-key atmosphere surrounding the date. It is being recognized, of course. Memorial services are being held today at the sites of the bombings and elsewhere, and each newspaper and TV channel is carrying a requisite interview with a survivor or family member of one of the victims. However, these are buried on the inside pages and at the end of the news shows, way behind the details of Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's latest political scandal - and the "real" national tragedy: England's football squad crashing out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals. Nor is there a feeling of heightened security throughout the capital. The Underground stations are in a state of customary cheerful chaos, with no signs of increased vigilance, let alone any passenger-screening arrangements. Even in public buildings that do have some kind of bag-checking system in effect, like museums, the inspection is perfunctory and doesn't include body checks. There are subtle indications of heightened alertness: More policemen are carrying unconcealed weapons, for example, once taboo for British police. But that's about the extent of it. The obvious question for an Israeli just arriving here is whether Britain, a year after the most serious attack on its mainland since World War II, is in denial about terrorism, or simply has a healthier sense of proportion than we do. It's not as if the 7/7 attacks were a one-time occurrence. Scotland Yard's anti-terrorism branch chief, Peter Clarke, spoke this week of at least 70 terrorist threats currently being monitored in Britain. But despite working around the clock, Clarke's officers haven't even wrapped up last year's investigation. Dozens of people suspected of involvement in at least the advance stages of planning the bombings, one of them a 16-year old boy, still await indictment, and there's no certainty they will go on trial. The investigators are still working to detail the actions of the four suicide bombers, all British citizens, in the months before the attack. Meanwhile, the country has yet to come to terms with the fact that it is dealing with what is essentially a home-grown threat. A RECENT intelligence assessment presented to the Israeli government noted that in the past, Britain was concerned with the alumni of the Afghani terrorist training camps. Now their main worry is Cambridge graduates. This shift was borne out in the local press this week. According to reports, while the internal security agency, MI5, was trying to recruit agents of diverse ethnical backgrounds, al-Qaida sympathizers were trying to exploit the offer to infiltrate the organization. In an even more bizarre development, the first British Muslim soldier, Pakistan-born Jabron Hashemi, was killed last week fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. His smiling picture appeared on all the front pages, with the papers quoting his family as saying that he had been "proud of Islam and proud of serving Britain." However, the more interesting quote was from a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, who tried to have it both ways by saying Hashemi's death should prove that Muslim citizens are a part of British society, while also emphasizing that his organization and the Muslim community at large were steadfastly opposed to Britain's participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was trying to use Hashemi's death for PR purposes, after new opinion polls showed that 13 percent of the UK's two million Muslims think that the suicide bombers were martyrs, and 36% believe that British values threaten Islam. Instead of dealing with conflict in its home counties, Britain's politicians and media seem much more concerned with the distant battles raging in the southern Afghanistan province of Helmland, where a recent deployment of 3000 British troops is bogged down in skirmishes with a resurgent Taliban, losing six soldiers so far in three weeks. The force was sent out with insufficient equipment and not enough sorely needed helicopters. In retrospect, it's hard to understand the surprise. The British leaders' expectations were totally unrealistic, with ministers insisting before the deployment that the troops wouldn't be fighting the Taliban and instead would be employed in reconstruction projects. The main realization that still seems to be eluding the Britons - leadership and public alike - is that these are not disconnected issues, and that they are fighting one all-out war, both at home and abroad. Originally, the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan two decades ago was one of the main events that radicalized the younger generation of Muslims in Europe. The terror attacks in Britain were originally planned by mujahideen veterans of that conflict, and recent events are only the latest episode. VISITING BRITAIN'S largest bookshop, Foyles, I expected to see prominent displays of new titles on the attacks and their aftermath, but found none. The specific book I was looking for, Londonistan, by Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, was nowhere to be found on the "recently published" shelves on the ground floor. The book, a coruscating attack on the British establishment for turning a blind eye while Islamists created a terror state in the center of the country, was available only in the military history department two floors up. Some in Britain actually believe that the terror threat should be a lower priority. In a televised interview on Wednesday, risk assessment expert Professor John Adams said that the government had actually exaggerated the terror issue and allocated too much resources to it. He argued that while 52 people died in the attacks, an equal number is killed on the nation's roads in an average six-day period. This argument is one often voiced in Israel. But the point made there is that road carnage should be treated more seriously - never that resources should be taken away from fighting terror. Even Adams's downplaying of terrorism in the UK was tucked away at the end of the program, after more pressing items, and cut off for lack of time. THE LAST time I was in London was exactly a year ago, when I rushed down from Scotland to report on the bombings. Walking back from Tavistock Square, where the bombed-out double-decker bus still lay - after filing my story via telephone - I was at first shocked to see the nearby pubs full of people stranded by the suspension of public transportation. They were seemingly unconcerned with the carnage that had happened a few hours ago, a hundred meters away. Was Britain in denial? Then I remembered the last suicide bombing I had covered in Jerusalem (in February 2004), next to Independence Park. Two hours later, I myself was sitting with other reporters in a packed coffee shop the capital. Perhaps this is the only way for democracies to deal with life under the threat of terror - with another cappuccino or a pint of Guinness. anshel@ejemm.com

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