London bombs: We are many, they are few
It is the terrorists who are weak and desperate, and the people they target who are resilient and resolute.
As the smoke clears from the London bombsites, we are left with a clearer picture that some might find surprising. It reveals the relative weakness of the terrorist threat to our society – and the resilience of the public response.
For years, and particularly since the terrorist attacks in America on 11 September 2001, we have been warned that Islamic terrorism now represents a mortal threat to all that we hold dear. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda have been spoken of in something approaching awe by experts who claim that a powerful world conspiracy is at work.
The flipside of this emphasis on the power of the terrorist threat has been the assumption that we are now very vulnerable. An army of therapeutic experts assures us that the fear of terrorism has traumatised entire societies in the West, and that we all need professional help to survive. Governments have often made melodramatic statements about the scope of the terrorist menace, such as when the then British home secretary David Blunkett described a single failed suicide bomber as a threat to ‘the life and liberty of our country’.
The authorities have also put that fearful attitude into practice. The British government has developed plans to flee London in the event of a serious terrorist bombing – something that was ruled out during the Second World War, despite the prospect of a Nazi army marching up Whitehall. In the USA after 9/11, the entire machinery of government in Washington was closed down by a few envelopes suspected of containing anthrax.
Yet the London bombs and the reaction to them reveal a reality that is the reverse of what we have been told. It is the terrorists who are weak and desperate, and the people they target who are resilient and resolute.
The weakness of contemporary terrorism, both physical and political, was graphically illustrated by these attacks. Of course, the London bombings were a ‘success’ for those who carried them out, and every death they caused is a tragedy that should not be minimised. But in a wider context, it is worth noting that this was only the second successful attack in the West since 9/11 almost four years ago. And it was considerably less devastating than the others. The attacks on New York and Washington left some 3000 dead; the Madrid bombings last year killed 191; the latest estimate of deaths in London bombs stands at ‘at least 50’. It seems quite a comedown from flying a hijacked airliner into the twin towers to blowing the top off a London bus.
The image of al-Qaeda as a powerful global conspiracy with a central command is largely a product of fevered Western imaginations (see Does al-Qaeda exist? and Meet the al-Qaeda archetype, by Brendan O’Neill). What we are facing are really small groups of disaffected Islamic youth, many of them middle class and just as likely to come from home as from abroad, who are finding it increasingly hard (though never impossible) to operate.
Of course, we should not put too much emphasis on the numbers game of falling death tolls. It is always possible that something like the London cell could get lucky and pull off a spectacular attack tomorrow. But it is the political weakness of the terrorists that these attacks revealed most starkly.
People in London and around Britain have been asking ‘what was it really about?’. Was it something to so with the war in Iraq, or London getting the 2012 Olympics, or the G8 summit in Scotland? It is not surprising that nobody really knows, since attacks such as these are not ‘about’ anything in real terms. Despite the grandiose Islamicised rhetoric of their spokesmen, today’s terrorists have no political aims or programme worthy of the name. One of bin Laden’s own central demands, for example, is a fantasy about reconquering al-Andalus, the Islamic kingdom in Spain that was ended by the defeat of the Moors more than 500 years ago.
Instead, this is terrorism as an end in itself, a nihilistic lashing out against Western society by sullen and bitter individuals. Presumably the timing of the London bombs was intended to coincide with the G8 summit. But to what effect? The bombers’ mindset seems rather like a more violent version of those masked G8 protesters who think that the way you make a revolution is by throwing some plants at police in Edinburgh or by trying to jump over a security fence near Gleneagles. Even if you succeed in those limited ambitions, so what? The London bombers used explosives to far more deadly effect. But their gesture was just as empty and useless, the act of petulant overgrown adolescents sticking two fingers up to authority. The only way these feeble terrorists can succeed is if we allow them to terrorise us and change our lives.
For years we have been told how vulnerable we are to their attacks. Yet the response to the London bombings has brought out the spirit of human resilience and resolution. The al-Qaeda supporting website which claimed on 7 July that ‘Britain is burning with fear’ was guilty of believing its own publicity. There was no panic on the streets of London and no wave of fear. Those caught up in the attacks worked together to get through their ordeal. Everybody else stood together – or perhaps more accurately, walked together, since the public transport system was closed down. As I wrote in the The Times today, if many were proud of London on Wednesday for winning the Olympic bid, I was much more so yesterday for the way the city responded to terror (1). Here was a genuine, spontaneous and heartening display of human solidarity, without the need for Bob Geldof to orchestrate it and with not a rock star or celebrity in sight, a quiet outpouring of the sort of inner strength on which better things can be built for the future.
Yet already, the parasites are gathering to try to feed off the bombings and turn the mood more funereal, by emphasising our vulnerability once more. The trauma industry is descending, telling everybody in London they need counselling and demanding more money for post-traumatic therapy. This follows the pattern of every disaster or tragedy in recent years. The record of those interventions suggests, however, that trauma therapy does little good and can do much harm. Studies after 9/11 found that many of those involved did not conform to the predicted model of traumatised victims. Moreover, by encouraging people to focus on a terrible experience, such therapy can make matters far worse. In society more broadly, the emphasis on therapeutic intervention seeks to persuade people that we are not as strong as we might like to think, and really do need professional help to cope with life.
There are others, too, in the political sphere trying to prey on the London attacks to promote an image of vulnerability rather than resilience. The UK home secretary, Charles Clarke, has already said that yet more security measures and anti-terror laws may be needed to keep us safe, at the cost of our civil liberties. On the other side, critics of the government such as the Respect MP George Galloway claim that the Bush-Blair Iraq War has left us at the mercy of Islamic terrorists. If only we did nothing to provoke these people, apparently, and perhaps apologised for our existence, they might agree to leave us alone. You do not need to be a supporter of the Iraq war (and we on spiked are not) to reject those self-loathing arguments depicting us as poor little victims.
After London, let us continue to stand up not only to the terrorists, but to those who seem keen to help do their jobs for them by making us feel less free and more afraid. No matter how many trains or planes they blow up, the relatively feeble forces of contemporary terrorism cannot bring down societies or civilisations. Only we can do that, from within, by giving up. The reaction to the London bombs suggests, however, that many of us are far more ready for the fight than our experts and authorities might like to think.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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