Analysis: Is this a war? Britain still hasn't quite decided

Even as the terror attempts multiply, the UK finds it hard to come to terms with homegrown extremism.

glasgow attack 298.88 (photo credit: )
glasgow attack 298.88
(photo credit: )
The reaction in Britain to two car bombs in London and a third up north baffles most Israelis, and not only Israelis. There is no rush to the scene by senior politicians; the cabinet doesn't change its agenda but instead goes ahead with a planned debate on constitutional reform; and the new prime minister makes do with a short statement, not mentioning the suspected perpetrators. Indeed, it was only two days after the car bombs were found in central London that Gordon Brown acknowledged to the BBC that it's "clear that we are dealing, in general terms, with people who are associated with al-Qaida." Even after the third incident at Glasgow Airport, the Scottish justice minister thought it important to quickly point out that the suspects were "not Scottish." And all the time, Londoners went on with life as usual and the passengers at Glasgow waited patiently for their delayed flights to be rescheduled. It's not as if anyone had expected London Mayor Ken Livingstone, the man who justified Palestinian suicide bombers since they "only have their bodies to use as weapons," to suddenly transform himself into Rudy Giuliani. Yet, from here, it's hard to fathom why, despite the fact that this weekend's failed attacks occurred just a week before the second anniversary of the 7/7 suicide attacks on the London public transport system that killed 52 commuters, Britain still hasn't quite decided whether it's at war. Some old-timers, and those old at heart, like to see this as a 21st Century model of the stiff upper lip: "Don't you know that the blitz was 10,000 times worse, and we still kept on." Another standard explanation is the one that sees all of Britain's shortcomings in the war on terror stemming from a craven attitude towards Muslim extremists on the part of the government, media, academia, police and even the Prince of Wales. They are all deemed to be to blame for the growth of "Londonistan." And now that there are three million rapidly radicalizing Muslims in the Kingdom, few politicians are brave enough to take on a community that, come the next elections, will control the outcome in a string of marginal constituencies. But this, too, is an oversimplified view of the problem. The deeply unpopular war in Iraq still looms over the Labor government, even after Tony Blair's departure from No. 10 Downing Street. Any government action on the antiterrorism front, even within Britain, leaves the party - whose leaders were US President George W. Bush's main international backers - open to bitter public recriminations. Brown's new team is trying to redefine its message, while the young and fresh David Cameron is busy re-branding the Conservatives. It seems almost as if the roles in British politics have been reversed. The "right-wing" Tories, who originally supported the war, have been joining calls for an inquiry into its origins and opposing government proposals to fight terrorism, such as ID cards and 90-day detention periods for terror suspects. Meanwhile, Brown (who as it is has an image problem with his own Scottishness), of the traditionally liberal, left-wing Labor, is talking about the "British way of life" and "Britishness" as a requirement for citizenship. Conservative commentators have rightly observed that if their party's spokesmen had used those terms they automatically would have been accused of racism. The identity crisis that both main parties are currently undergoing is but a reflection of what is happening to an entire society, buffeted by a growing sense of regional nationalism in Scotland, Wales and previously confident England, and by the partisans of multiculturalism, especially in a truly international city such as London. For Britons, the war on terror is not the same as it is for Israelis or Americans, facing a largely foreign enemy. Most of those who have carried out terrorist attacks in the UK, or are suspected of involvement in them, are indeed Islamist, but they are also homegrown. And it's hard to expect a real war on terror from a country whose peoples don't know who they are anymore, let alone who the enemy is.