Opinion: Britain's low-key attitude on terrorism


LONDON, U.K. — Mass murders are significant events and their anniversaries are usually a time for reflection and public commemoration.

Five years ago today, four suicide bombers blew themselves up in a coordinated attack on London's transport system. Fifty-two people were killed and several hundred more were injured. The bombers were all British Muslims.

But Wednesday's anniversary is being marked, well, it's being marked by nothing.

There will be no memorial service for the victims' families attended by the royal family or the prime minister, no re-enactment of the London-wide moment of silence that marked the first anniversary of the atrocity.

Not everyone is happy about the government's hands-off attitude. Thelma Stober, who lost part of a leg in the bombing, told the BBC she had approached the government about marking the occasion but had been turned down.

The government department responsible issued a statement, "Many of the families have told us that after five years, they no longer look to government to lead the commemorations. They prefer to remember their loved ones in their own way. Many are planning to visit the memorial throughout the day." The BBC did not record Stober's response.

The 7/7 memorial, located in Hyde Park, is a sculpture comprised of 52 steel columns, each 11 feet high and representing one of the dead.

The non-observance of the occasion says much about British society's ability to absorb a shock as big as 7/7. It is useful to compare the non-event of this anniversary to the hysteria that has accompanied the failed bomb plots in Detroit and Times Square. There are several reasons why the British take a low-key attitude to terrorism.

First is the country's long acquaintance with the random violence of modern terrorism. For the better part of 15 years, the IRA waged a bombing campaign on the island of Britain. In that time they killed senior conservative politicians and innocent school children. They mortared 10 Downing Street when the British cabinet was meeting. Society realized the best way to deal with this sort of attack was to carry on as before. That lesson has been carried over and applied to Islamist terrorism.

Second, it is clear that the Muslim community itself was as shocked by the events as the rest of Britain and has worked quietly from within to confront radicals. It is notable that the most persistently vocal radicals are increasingly isolated.

Anjem Choudary, can always get the newspapers' attention with outrageous comments and stunts like his threat to parade 500 empty coffins through the streets of Wooton Bassett, the town adjacent to the military airport where the coffins of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan arrive back in the U.K.  Choudary's threat came to nothing. His own community was profoundly embarrassed by it.

The third reason for Britain's low-key attitude is that security services have learned as many lessons over the years about how to respond to terrorist provocation as British society has. There has clearly been cooperation between Britain's domestic and international security agencies, and intelligence on jihadist activity gleaned in Pakistan has been used to thwart at least some of the plots in Britain.

It is also clear that sources of information within the Muslim community have been developed and have helped police cut things off before they get out of hand. Up to 12 plots are reported to have been foiled in the last decade.

The margin of error remains thin on all sides. In June 2006 police raided a home in Forest Gate in London and shot an innocent man who they thought was involved in a jihadist plot. In July 2007, an attempt to set off a car bomb near a nightclub in Piccadilly Circus failed because the explosive device was faulty, not because of police activity. The two bombers then drove north to Glasgow in Scotland and attempted to blow their car up at the airport. They failed.

These two examples speak to the difficulty facing police and the Muslim community. But for the most part a tenuous balance has been reached.

Tariq Modood, professor of Sociology at Bristol University, summarized the attitude inside the Muslim community as wanting to allay their fellow citizens' fears about Islam but also wondering if they have all been smeared with the jihadi brush. "We hear you, but do you hear us?" he told the BBC.

The answer to that question might be found in Tuesday's announcement by British Prime Minister David Cameron that there will be an independent judicial inquiry into allegations that Britain was complicit in torture of some of its Muslim citizens suspected of terrorism in the years after 9/11.

Ten Britons were held at Guantanamo. Several of them have claimed British intelligence operatives were involved in sending them for torture while they were en route to the notorious detention center. This has long angered Britain's Muslim community.

Tuesday's announcement demonstrates that the government does indeed hear what its Muslim minority says. The enquiry will be another quiet bit of bridge building to ensure that another 7/7 never happens.