08 July 2005

Early Reflections

I'm sitting at home today - it's very impressive that they've got the trains running as well as they have, but my journey is a 3-hour round trip at the best of times, and it's really not worth dealing with the extra delays.

My main reaction today, as I hinted yesterday, is that this was a weak blow. We assumed it was coming, and I expected it to be much worse. The final scale of the event was similar to the Kings Cross fire of '86, or the Ladbroke Grove crash. The level of disruption is much lower than the Hatfield crash.

More on the implications of this below.

The second reaction is how well the authorities and the transport companies dealt with it. A major city is like a huge old engine, with massive and dangerous forces (the movements and supplies of millions of people) barely controlled. Throw a spanner into it and the secondary effects can be much worse than the impact. The engine took this almost in its stride - pretty much all of us got home last night, there was no chaos, the essential services were available to the victims and to the rest of us. There has been a lot of planning an rehearsals for this kind of situation, but that's no guarantee the response will come off right. It did, and thanks and congratulations are due to everyone involved.

The third response is amazement at the claim by the group that said it did it, of "fear, terror and panic" around Britain. Get a clue!

I suppose every nation has a central "modern myth" of how it sees itself at its best. We've just been celebrating Nelson and Trafalgar and all that, but there can be no doubt that the defining myth of modern Britan is the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. The story of that myth is that an apparently invincible enemy went all out to destroy us, failed, and allowed itself to be worn out in the process, picked to pieces by a few of our best.

That's one reason why our response is neither the "fear and panic" imagined by our enemies, or the vengeful rage of the Americans with their myths of rattlesnakes and so on. That we could allow ourselves to lose our cool, in the sight of our parents and grandparents who lived through the 1940s, would be the most shameful thing I can think of, even if the situation today were a hundred times worse than it is. We will stand and take it, as they did, and we will grind out a victory, as they did.

That is the emotional response. The history, as always, is more complicated, but I am talking mythology not history, and the mythical ideal in front of us is clear.

So what to make of the feebleness of the long-anticipated blow? While not wanting to praise a bunch of murderers too highly, the attacks on New York in 2001 showed imagination, sophistication, skill and patience. By Madrid in 2004, the imagination had gone, the scale of planning was reduced, but it was still a very competently executed and effective attack. Here in 2005, the level of compentence was way down. How can you set off four bombs in the London rush-hour and only kill 40 people? There's either a severe shortage of backup (supplies, explosives, whatever), or a severe shortage of brains, or both.

Indeed, the most striking fact of the last five years is that there has been no follow-up attack on the United States. As the months went by we believed they were preparing for another major spectacular, and then as the years went by and attacks came elsewhere - Bali, Madrid, it sunk in that they just weren't capable of continuing their campaign.

As I suggested yesterday, I believe that leaving aside labels and slogans, the organisation behind September 2001 was essentially destroyed in Afghanistan. There are volunteers and sympathisers aplenty, there is money and possibly brains available, but there's no core of skilled organisers with the right contacts to put it all together in secret.

Another possibility is that September 2001 was a one-off fluke, and there never was an enemy capable of seriously threatening western society. The scale of the threat has been overestimated, either honestly or intentionally by politicians looking to further particular foreign or domestic agendas.

I don't really buy that. The World Trade Centre was perhaps a fluke in that the towers collapsed, putting the death toll into thousands rather than hundreds, and of course they had a greater advantage of surprise then, but there was clearly a significant organisation there, with supply lines, contacts, knowledge and skills to repeat the process. It seems likely that if they had been left alone, they would have done so. To strike first at the heart of the enemy, powerfully, then less strongly in Bali, then the same in Madrid, and now less strongly still in London, really shows decline in a way that any coherent leadership would be desperate to avoid if it could.

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