The inevitability of not mentioning the war
24 July 2005
There isn’t much that’s terribly amusing about terrorism. However, we did once visit Northern Ireland during the ceasefire on a press junket arranged by the tourist board, and during one of many free meals in Belfast, we were privy to the following exchange:
Journalist: So were you affected by the Troubles?
Restaurateur: Oh yes. The IRA planted a bomb in the building next door.
[Collective hush as assembled journos and PR flunkeys wait, with ghoulish glee, for horrific story of flying glass, maimings, severed limbs and general carnage and death.]
Restaurateur: It set off the sprinkler system and some of the foam seeped through and damaged our carpet....
There’s something somehow reassuring about the prosaic nature of this individual’s experience of terrorism, but what did emerge during the trip was the sheer sense of relief that the bombings had, largely, ended. Not because Belfast was a war zone, but because the locals, particularly the older ones, had lived so long with the small but real risk of being caught in a bomb blast.
Yesterday London got a taste of what repeated bombings might be like, echoing the bombing campaigns by the IRA in the 70s and 80s on the mainland which, although they produced nothing that could be called victory, succeeded in their aim of instilling a sense of fear and unease in major cities.
It’s not a nice thing to admit, but many of us were, in a strange way, quite upbeat about the bombings on 7 July. Most of us could say to ourselves: ‘Well, at least it wasn’t me or any of my friends, and it’s not going to happen again for a long while.’
Oops. While yesterday’s attacks weren’t anything like as horrific or disruptive as the previous batch, it was hard not to watch the news and think ‘Is this what it’s going to be like from now on?’
This is almost certainly an overreaction, and there have been suggestions that the latest bombings are ‘copycat’ attacks by ‘amateur’ terrorists - as though, like golfers, there’s a point where you give up your day job and go 'professional’ as a bringer of death and mayhem. However, the idea of ‘amateur’ terrorists isn’t particularly reassuring: if true, it suggests we’re under attack by both international terrorists AND keen, homegrown amateurs. Great.
Moreover, the resources needed to attack soft targets and bring London to a standstill aren’t particularly great. All the attacks used home-made bombs and most of the bombers appear to have been British citizens living apparently innocuous lives. In other words, it could well happen again. It would be wrong to compare the attacks in London with, say, the near-outright warfare conducted by suicide bombers against Israel, but what’s clear is that it’s going to be practically impossible to prevent more attacks if there are people with the will to carry them out.
Which is why it’s deeply disturbing to see the government’s response. The main reaction has been to come out with platitudes about ‘not letting terrorists win’ - as though there’s a clear win/lose outcome against terrorism. It’s also clear that the government has little idea about what to do when confronted with a nebulous terrorist ‘organisation’ with rather random objectives and targets.
But most worrying of all is the fact that the government, as ever, just tries to ignore the fact that the war in Iraq has increased the risk of the UK becoming a target. Never has Tony Blair looked so out of his depth, yet he insists on pretending that he is in control. It’s an insult to our intelligence, really. As is the idea that extremist Islamic terrorism is an inevitable fact of modern life.