I’ve always been wary of ascribing personalities to cities. After all, they are just physical spaces; millions of individuals in thousands of buildings in hundreds of disparate communities. But if ever there was a case of a city having a collective identity, it has to be London.
The response to the worst terrorist outrage since the Blitz has been uniquely London’s own. That combination of stoicism wry humour and dogged determination. The defiant refusal to panic or indulge in hysterical retribution in the face of an atrocity which would have reduced many cities to hysteria and random violence. If terrorist acts are a test of character, then London passed with distinction. It was London’s other finest hour.
In the face of terror, normality is the the most powerful weapon. It robs the terrorists of the thing they prize - fear, hate, retribution, revenge. It was as if London had picked itself up, bloody and dishevelled, and said to the bombers: Ok mate, we know what you’re trying to do, and were not going to let you succeed. We are not going to start firebombing Mosques, locking up Muslims, launching in pogroms, or engage in more futile acts of aggression in the Middle East. No. We are going to carry on exactly as normal, just to show that we are stronger.
Of course, the London bombings weren’t on the scale of the twin towers on 9/11, nor even the lethal force of the Madrid bombing in 2004. But you don’t really measure these things in body bags. It was bad enough on Thursday: seven hundred people injured and fifty dead is enough to turn some communities deranged with grief and anger.
The nature of the bombings was particularly evil - underground, in the dark of tube tunnels, where there is no escape. It is what every London commuter dreads. Travelling by London tube is a miserable experience at the best of times especially in the sticky summer. But to have the ever-present threat of incineration, deep below the streets, where no one can hear you, adds a profound anxiety to an uncomfortable daily chore.
And yet, terror only works if you succumb to it, and Londoners seem to possess a capacity for spontaneous mutual moral support. It gives them the collective strength to overcome fear and - as Churchill said during the war - “just keep buggering on”.
Buggering on is what Londoners are supremely good at. They learned it during the Blitz, when London became the first city to suffer, not just aerial bombardment -Guernica has that distinction - but aerial genocide. The Nazis intended systematically to destroy London and its people. But the people sang and made tea in their underground shelters, making good by making do.
I suppose if you can put up with that, so you’re not going to get in a state about al Qaeda - or whoever it is was behind the London bombs. The city has also seen off the Irish Republican Army. It is hard to believe, but the Çanary wharf bombing was less than ten years ago. Over the years, the IRA killed fifty odd Londoners and injured hundreds. So Londoners are no strangers to mass murder.
But, this is a very different city from the one that took on the Nazis. London in 1941 was a white city - rather as Edinburgh is today. There were immigrant communities, but they were few and far between. Now, when you travel through central London at the weekend, it’s sometimes hard to believe you are in Britain.
This is polyglot city - a community three hundred languages as Ken Livingstone put it - one of the most cosmopolitan in the world, and the Muslim community is one of the most prominent features of urban life. London is a new kind of post-racial city state, a multi-cultural melting pot, where identity is being constantly refashioned. You don’t think of race in London because London is about all races.
So, when Islamic extremists attack London commuters, they are also attacking themselves. At least one Muslim died in the Tavistock bus. Many others were wounded. London Muslims live their lives largely unmolested by the indigenous London communities, even though aspects of the Islamic religious codes, like attitudes to women, are out of tune with British values. It is a grim irony that Islamic Londoners are under more threat from Islamic jihadists than from whites.
The London bombs were an atrocity, but they were also dumb. These terrorists are stupid as well as barbaric, and their stupidity will be their undoing. The blasts were timed to coincide with the G8 meeting in Gleneagles, where the Western countries were finally accepting at least some of the responsibility toward the developing world. What kind of message was that supposed to send to the Islamic peoples of sub-saharan Africa? That in the great religious war against the infidel, Africa is expendable, irrelevant, merely a theatre for the politics of hate?
Of course, in a sense Britain had it coming. As joint invaders of Iraq, we placed ourselves in the front-line of international terror. Arguably, George Galloway was only stating the obvious when he said that this was the price we pay for backing Bush’s war. Only his timing betrayed his insensitivity. There is a time for making these points, and the immediate aftermath, when the blood is still fresh on the walls, isn’t it.
Nor is it yet time to rehearse again the arguments about the wisdom of the war in Iraq. But this government was warned that the invasion of a Muslim country, in defiance of international law, was bound to make international terrorism worse. That has proved to be the case. Last month the CIA said that a new generation of hardened jihadist had been borne in the rubble of Fallujah and other Iraqi cities, and that this would pose a threat to the West for years to come.
So, London may have to rely on its native resilience and moral fortitude again in the not too distant future. This is likely to be the beginning rather than the end. The London bombings were technically accomplished. Co-ordinating the detonation of four devices in this most security conscious city is not easy. Inevitable it may have been, but the London bombs show that terrorist cells can work freely in Britain, despite massive effort by police and Mi5 devoted to destroying their networks. If they can do this now, they can do it again, and no doubt will.
This is not the time, either, for any sensible discussion of increased security measures. There have been predictable calls for an extension of detention without trial, for the abolition of the Human Rights Act, even for border police to bar from Britain anyone they don’t like the look of. At least the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, had the honesty to say that identity cards wouldn’t have stopped last week’s assaults.
But the introduction of draconian security measures which destroy freedom and foment prejudice, would only reward the terrorists. That’s just what they want us to do. The only way that the bombers can win is if we defeat ourselves by destroying the democratic freedoms they hate so much.
It would be an insult, moreover to the people of London. In the end, it is not the security measures that will defeat terrorism, but the character of the people. Terrorism only succeeds if it provokes panic and hatred, if it forces governments to react with illiberal and repressive measures. London has set a magnificent example in its response to Thursday’s bombings. Let’s hope the government lives up to it.