Listen to this article
First thoughts: of loved ones, obviously; were any caught up in this? Frenzied phone calls follow but thankfully it appears not. Then what of those we know generally? It is a big office, some of our colleagues might be travelling that way. Then there are all those people who turn up at the office every day or at drinks in the pub, but we don’t know where they live or what Tube they use.
Then what? Assuming no awful news, do you look at the bus blown to bits in the square and think of those who were on it? Those who, in the hours after it happened, are simply a word, casualties, but who over the coming days will become names and faces smiling from the front pages of newspapers. Wedding photos of the dead; little children, God forbid. People who casually kissed their loved ones goodbye this morning and never came home. Do you imagine the relatives desperately phoning mobiles, initially telling themselves everything is all right, that he or she is just caught in the chaos? Then the panic growing as the hours tick on.
At some point, perhaps, you scan the pattern of the attacks to ascertain whether it could have been you. Are you ever near Woburn Place? Do you travel that way by Tube? Do you use those stations? Did you even have – it is almost tasteless to mention it – that fleeting, shaming sense of relief? The “well now it’s happened and it didn’t happen to me”?
After the shock, the mundanities of life come creeping back. How do I get to work? How will I get home? Who will pick up the kids from school?
And after that, what? The anger; the questions. How could this happen? The trouble is, we know how it could happen. Police chiefs and home secretaries have been warning us it was “inevitable”. It turns out they were right. It finally happened, almost exactly as expected. There was no dirty bomb. This was low-tech terrorism, but still deadly.
On Wednesday Londoners danced and celebrated the success of their Olympic bid. A day later the jubilation is extinguished. The bombs were assumedly timed to coincide with the G8. George W. Bush, US president, was quick to contrast the motives of the killers with the minds of the men at the G8 trying to thrash out a deal on poverty in Africa – although suddenly talk of saving the world seems rather soft and fanciful.
In Gleneagles the comment had all been about Tony Blair’s triumphant two months, the prime minister as the comeback kid, the man who is trying to save Africa’s poor hordes (the plight of whom is shifting further out of focus), who brought home the Olympics. One can only speculate as to the impact on the vote had these outrages been a day earlier. Now he was speeding back to London to see the carnage and mired once more in the consequences of those foreign policy decisions he was rather hoping to have left behind. Britain’s feelgood factor lasted about as long as one of its summers.
Now in place of an Olympic party we have carnage and Ken Livingstone telling us the dead are ordinary “working-class” people, as if this added to the gravity of the crime. And with this comes platitudes. The “terrorists will not win; they cannot be allowed to disrupt our lives and ruin that which we hold dear”. But they have won. These bombers, assuming as we all do that they are al-Qaeda in some guise or another, are political nihilists. They make no meaningful demands. Their goal was to kill, disrupt and strike fear, to “avenge” fallen brothers elsewhere – and they have already succeeded.
The inevitable human and political response is a crackdown. The government can simply cry “Russell Square” and speed its legislation through. At this early stage it is impossible to know which measures might have helped – it is hard to see how ID cards would stop a man with a bomb boarding a bus. On the other hand, should any of those released from detention turn out to be implicated, those who placed a premium on civil rights have some hard thinking ahead of them.
Otherwise, however, the grim fulfilment of prophecy is not in itself a reason to throw freedom to the wind. Measures that make people more safe must be considered, but measures that merely make them feel more safe and fill a primeval desire to see something done can only undermine the way of life Mr Blair has just said he will safeguard.
We cannot be protected utterly from this sort of terror, as the IRA spent the 1970s and 1980s proving. We have to decide how many of our freedoms we are prepared to trade for extra safety. Today we would not be human if it were not quite a few. But even the most authoritarian states endure terrorism. People who are prepared to trade their lives for ours can be thwarted but never stopped entirely. They are ready to die here for their beliefs, but we have to live here.
Get alerts on World when a new story is published