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All the evidence now points to the probability that four young suicide bombers were responsible for the carnage that took more than 50 lives on three London Underground trains and a double-decker bus last week.
For the first time, the phenomenon of desperate and fanatical young people, willing to give their lives in order to slaughter dozens of random and innocent victims, has come to British shores. It has existed for years in the Middle East, especially in Israel, and now occurs on an almost daily basis in Iraq, causing a far more terrible death toll than any we sufferedsuffered in London. Yet the shock in comfortable, well-ordered Britain is profound.
If the police suspicions are correct, the sheer normality of the young men involved, born in Yorkshire, with British citizenship, into relatively settled and comfortable immigrant families from south Asia, adds to the alarm signals.
But does the fact that suicide bombers carried out the terrorism in London change the nature of the response? What has been most impressive about the reaction of Londoners, the security services and the government so far has been its calmness, the lack of any panic. They simply got on with their jobs. It has struck almost all observers as the right reaction.
There is grieving for the dead and huge sympathy for their friends and families. There will have to be sustained support for the 700 injured. But there is also a determination not to allow excessive security to intrude uponon the basic freedoms of movement and association that are precisely what such terrorists must have wished to destroy.
Suicide bombers are far more difficult to deter than those who seek to plant their bombs and retreat to carry on their murderous activities another day. Suicide terrorism for a cause that has no clear political solution is entirely different to the IRA’s campaign of terror or that of the Basque ETA group in Spain.
We cannot build walls around us as they have attempted to do in Israel. We cannot set up metal detectors on every bus or at the entrance to every Tube. There is clearly a limit to how far such easy targets can be protected.
Better intelligence is obviously part of the necessary response but even that is limited in what it is capable of achieving. It seems that none of the four suspected bombers had featured in any previous security surveillance.
The most important and effective answer must come from within the communities of the terrorists themselves, in this case presumably the wider Muslim community and its constituent parts, whether of Pakistani, Middle Eastern, north African or other origin. Their response to the London bombings has already been impressive in its determination to tackle extremist Islamism in mosques orand schools. Muslim leaders have spoken out clearly about the evil in their midst and now need to ensure that it is no longer tolerated over the months and years ahead.
Yet they face a real dilemma. The young generation of would-be suicide bombers comes from a different world to that of their parents. They know little of and owe little to the older generation’s countries of origin. Many have been brought up in urban ghettoesghettos in the industrial cities of Scotland, northern England and the Midlands. They owe no allegiance either to their new country of residence. They are in effect a lost generation.
Add to that the insidious attraction of the new global Islamism, call it al-Qaeda or what one will. It is a global brand without a sense of community or responsibility, offering fanatical devotion in place of social integration. It is the ideological equivalent of McDonald’s – faceless and rootless. The motivations are global, too, whether inspired by the war in Iraq or Israel or Afghanistan.
The bombers chose the softest of targets in London’s public transport system, and possibly the most multicultural too. Nowhere else in the city are all races and cultures thrust into such intimacy. That is one of the factors why all the minority groups in Britain seem to have closed ranks to condemn their acts.
But is the rest of the country, and indeed the capital city, really as integrated as we might like to believe? In recent years there has been a certain British smugness about the relative success in integrating immigrant communities, be they Muslims and Hindus from south Asia, West Indians or Africans, into British society. The suggestion is that other European countries such as France or the Netherlands have suffered more racial incidents because of their failure to integrate. The suicide bombers call such conclusions into question, as do the periodic race riots we have seen in northern cities.
The challenge for moderate Muslim leaders is to identify and ostracise the extremists in their communities before the backlash from white Britain, led no doubt by the racists of the British National Party and their sympathisers, causes even greater alienation among their younger generation. That is a great danger.
The existence of suicide bombers does not call into question the broad strategy of racial integration. If anything, it makes the task more urgent, and a moderate response more essential.