Defeating Terrorism as a Matter of Principle

I am sitting at home, writing about David Ben-Gurion’s historic debate with Agudat Israel about a constitution for the new state of Israel, when the telephone rings. A colleague from Israel asks if I’m OK.

“OK? Everyone’s fine.” A silence. “You had better watch the BBC,” he says. “There have been explosions in London.”

A bus had been bombed a few minutes from my office in the university quarter in central London. The traffic-congested street is impenetrable in the London rush hour. Another bomb had gone off in Aldgate, near the famous Petticoat Lane market where I used to work as a teenager.

The BBC shows wave after wave of ambulances arriving at the Royal London Hospital, and an announcement that the Aldgate blast has claimed two lives. Yet the television coverage is calm and collected. The commentary is unemotional and rational — all very English. Even the television pictures are very ordered. There are no scenes of carnage and body parts, only of emergency workers putting into practice a drill planned long ago.

My wife, who works for a Jewish organization, calls to say that security procedures in her institution have been put into operation. One daughter calls from Jerusalem, another from Bnei Brak. A friend calls from Sweden. A cousin e-mails from Rehovot. The police sirens and the sound of helicopters overhead sound louder and more frequent than usual. Yesterday, London won the Olympic bid; today the terror has finally come to visit us.

Londoners have been warned many times by Scotland Yard that terrorists would eventually strike. The police insisted it was not a case of “if,” but “when.” Of course, no one ever believes it will happen to them.

The London Underground is always crammed to the rafters during rush hour with unhappy passengers. It was in the days after the March 2004 Madrid train bombings that I really began to consider what could happen on one of those crowded journeys home.

Normally I would have been in the vicinity of the bomb, but today I decided to work at home. Tomorrow, I am supposed to brief an incoming European ambassador to Israel. What would have happened, I think to myself, had it been today?

Images of the Sbarro restaurant bombing in Jerusalem come flooding back. A few days before, my entire family had been there and we were served by pleasant, smiling young people behind the counter.

Throughout the long years of the suicide bombers, I always warned my children in Israel to take precautions. Avoid certain public places, don’t take certain bus routes. Will I now be giving the same advice to my other children, here in London? I remember laughing when an Israeli came up to me to thank me for coming to Tel Aviv a couple of years ago. I have never thought of myself as a tourist. But what will happen now to tourism in London? Will the Americans stay away, cocooned in their self-isolation?

My mind eventually turns to the question of who could have been responsible. The far right? The far left? The Islamists?

The far right is in disarray. The far left prefers street fighting. Logically, it would seem that the Islamists have both the experience and the inclination to send a message to the G8 summit in Edinburgh.

No television commentator is willing to commit himself to a view. Yet these bombs will create a sea change in public opinion. Under the phlegmatic veneer of “business as usual,” there will be a determination not to give in to terror and to catch the culprits.

Will there be a backlash against Britain’s Muslim community? Probably, but more likely only in the short term, with official pleas for tolerance and not to rush to judgment. Yesterday, I watched Muslim children in a primary school in an impoverished area of East London cheering wildly when Britain was chosen for the 2012 Olympics. How will they be treated tomorrow?

There will no doubt be increased pressure from the political right to tighten up the asylum system. Charles Clarke, the home secretary, was tottering under the weight of attacks for his plan to introduce identity cards. Civil liberties were at stake. The rights of the individual and the intrusion of the state were robustly defended. Clarke spoke about the threat of terrorism and his voice was drowned out. No one really took him seriously. Today he is coordinating efforts in the aftermath of the bombings.

No doubt, after a suitable time interval, someone on the far left will attempt to write “an understanding” of these attacks: the centuries of colonialist oppression and imperialist expansion, the occupation of Iraq, the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, the identification with Israel.

I return to the television. A special Cabinet committee has been activated. A grim-faced Tony Blair tells the nation at noon that those who wish to impose extremism on the world will never destroy civilized values and the British way of life. He confirms that this was a terrorist attack timed to coincide with the opening of the summit.

In the 1970s, the IRA conducted a bombing campaign in Britain. The Irish derived the rationale for their actions from 19th-century nationalism, but they never embraced the legacy of the suicide bomber.

Today I am doubly targeted, for my British citizenship and for my Jewish nationality. The telephone rings again. It is the university. My colleague calmly asks: “If the ambassador can travel to London by Eurostar, will you still come in? If the Underground isn’t running, we will pay for taxis.”

“Of course, I will — as a matter of principle,” I hear myself answer. After all, our history dictates no other response.

Jerusalem Post 15 July 2005

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