The purpose of terrorism is to terrorize: to scare or intimidate a society. The perpetrators of the bombings in London on Thursday may claim to have some lofty purpose, but attacks on ordinary citizens are barbaric, pure and simple. And, once again, the murderers have failed: They have not broken or even bent the will of Londoners or the convened Group of Eight leaders, who, in a sense, were the targets of these attacks. Instead, the perpetrators appeared as cowards and have further discredited themselves and their so-called cause.
While many details are still unknown, this much is certain. Four bombs went off in less than an hour during the Thursday morning rush-hour commute: three on the subway and one on a double-decker bus. British officials say the death toll is certain to climb past 50. Some 700 people have been injured.
A previously unknown Islamist group, The Secret Organization of al-Qaeda Jihad in Europe, claimed responsibility, saying the attacks were “in revenge for the massacres that Britain is committing in Iraq and Afghanistan.” The group threatened Italy and Denmark unless they withdrew their troops from Iraq.
The bombings bear many of the fingerprints of al-Qaeda-style terrorism. It was a highly coordinated plan, with multiple targets, designed to sow terror and confusion. It targeted subways and buses, the infrastructure of daily life. It resembled the attacks on commuter trains in Madrid 16 months ago: Then, 10 bombs went off during the morning rush hour, killing 191 people.
Symbolism was another al-Qaeda hallmark. Just as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks struck at the heart of U.S. power and influence, the atrocities Thursday occurred as leaders of the world’s leading industrialized nations, the G8, were meeting in Gleneagles, Scotland, hosted by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The attacks failed because the world united, as it did after 9/11, to condemn the atrocities. The G8 meeting took a break while Mr. Blair headed home to assess the situation, and then resumed to “assure the people of the United Kingdom of our solidarity in the continuing struggle against terrorism, and to pledge to bring terrorists to justice wherever they are.”
While the attacks were terrifying — and made even more surreal by the fact that they occurred as Britain was celebrating London’s winning bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games — they did not bend the nation’s spirit. There was outrage and anger, but the victims — and by this we mean all Londoners — understand who is responsible for the blood that has been spilled.
Indeed, there was a sick irony plainly evident: The killers sought to disrupt progress that the leaders at the G8 summit were making in the fight against poverty, disease and climate change. As U.S. President George W. Bush put it, “On the one hand, you have people working to alleviate poverty, rid the world of the pandemic of AIDS and (find) ways to have a clean environment, and on the other hand, you have people working to kill other people.”
There are obvious lessons to be learned from the attacks. The threat of terrorism remains real. Governments must continue to plan for the worst. Londoners should be proud of their response to the bombings. Emergency services responded exceptionally well, in part because the city of London had prepared for such contingencies and had a plan in place. One of the training exercises undertaken after 9/11 was based on the possibility of multiple explosions involving the transport system during rush hour.
Yet citizens of all democracies must recognize that, no matter how much they plan, vulnerabilities are inevitable. British security officials conceded that they were taken by surprise, even though they had anticipated terrorist attacks for years. The open borders that are part of the European dream will continue to facilitate trade, investment, human exchanges, and crime. Asians now speak of their own hope for growing unity. As an Asian community emerges, borders in this part of the world will become increasingly porous as well.
This dream — this pursuit of freedom, hope and opportunity — is one of the terrorists’ targets. London Mayor Ken Livingston reminded the world of the stakes in comments immediately after the attacks. His words are worth quoting: “Even after your cowardly attacks, people from the rest of Britain, people from around the world will arrive in London to become Londoners and to fulfill their dreams and achieve their potential.
“They come to be free, they come to live the life they choose, they come to be able to be themselves. They flee you because you tell them how they should live. They don’t want that. And however many of us you kill, you will not stop their flight to our cities where freedom is strong and where people can live in harmony with one another.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.