Fighting Words

The Anticipated Attack

Don’t blame Iraq for the bombings.

The remains of a London bus destroyed by a bomb near Tavistock Square

My son flew in from London at the weekend, and we were discussing, as we have several times before, why it hadn’t happened yet. “It” was the jihadist attack on the city, for which the British security forces have been braced ever since the bombings in Madrid. When the telephone rang in the small hours of this morning, I was pretty sure it was the call I had been waiting for. And as I snapped on the TV I could see, from the drawn expression and halting speech of Tony Blair, that he was reacting not so much with shock as from a sense of inevitability.

Perhaps this partly explains the stoicism and insouciance of those Brits interviewed on the streets, all of whom seemed to know that a certain sang-froid was expected of them. The concrete barriers around the Houses of Parliament have been up for some time. There are estimated to be over 4 million surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom today, but of course it had to be the Underground—”the tube”—and the good old symbolic red London bus. Timed for the rush hour, and at transit stations that serve outlying and East London neighborhoods, the bombs are nearly certain to have killed a number of British Muslims. None of this, of course, has stopped George Galloway and his ilk from rushing to the microphone and demanding that the British people be removed “from harm’s way” by an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. (Since the Islamists also demand a withdrawal from Afghanistan, it surprises me that he doesn’t oblige them in this way as well, but perhaps that will come in time.)

Looking for possible timings or pretexts, one of course comes up against the meeting of the G8 powers in Edinburgh and perhaps the imminent British spot in the rotating chair of the European Union. (It can’t have been the Olympic announcement on such short notice, but the contrast with the happy, multiethnic crowds in Trafalgar Square yesterday could hardly be starker, and it certainly wasn’t enough to get the murderers to call it off.) Another possibility is the impending trial of Abu Hamza al Mazri, a one-eyed and hook-handed mullah who isn’t as nice as he looks and who preaches Bin-Ladenism from a shabby mosque in North London. He is currently awaiting extradition to the United States, and his supporters might have wanted to make a loving gesture in his favor.

This would mean that the cell or gang was homegrown, rather than smuggled in from North Africa or elsewhere. Or it could mean coordination between the two. In any event, there are two considerations here. The first is Britain’s role as a leading member of the “Coalition” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The second is its role as a host to a large and growing Muslim minority. The first British citizens to be killed in Afghanistan were fighting for the Taliban, which is proof in itself that the Iraq war is not the original motivating force. Last year, two British Muslims pulled off a suicide attack at an Israeli beach resort. In many British cities, there are now demands for sexual segregation in schools and for separate sharia courts to try Muslim defendants. The electoral strength of Muslims is great enough to encourage pandering from all three parties: The most egregious pandering of all has come from Blair himself, who has introduced a bill that would criminalize incitement to hatred on the ground of religion. *

During the last election the Conservatives, who have chosen to go soft on the Iraq war, mutated their lost hawkishness into a campaign against “illegal immigrants” and “bogus asylum seekers”—easy code words for an enemy within. So, there is another form of pandering at work as well. In the main, though, London is a highly successful and thriving melting pot, and I would be very much surprised as well as appalled if there were any vengeance pursued against individual Muslims or mosques.

Older Londoners are of course raised on memories of the Nazi blitzkrieg, and a younger generation remembers living through a long campaign of bombings by the Provisional IRA. This latest challenge is far more insidious, however, because the ambitions of the killers are non-negotiable, and because their methods so exactly match their aims. It will be easy in the short term for Blair to rally national and international support, as always happens in moments such as this, but over time these gestural moments lose their force and become subject to diminishing returns. If, as one must suspect, these bombs are only the first, then Britain will start to undergo the same tensions—between a retreat to insularity and clannishness of the sort recently seen in France and Holland, and the self-segregation of the Muslim minority in both those countries—that will start to infect other European countries as well. It is ludicrous to try and reduce this to Iraq. Europe is steadily becoming a part of the civil war that is roiling the Islamic world, and it will require all our cultural ingenuity to ensure that the criminals who shattered London’s peace at rush hour this morning are not the ones who dictate the pace and rhythm of events from now on.

Correction, July 8, 2005: This piece originally and incorrectly claimed that Prime Minister Tony Blair had promised legislation that would outlaw speech that could be construed as offensive to Islam and that this represented an extension of Britain’s blasphemy law. The government has introduced a bill that would criminalize incitement to hatred on the grounds of religion; this is an extension of a law that prohibits incitement to hatred on racial grounds and is unrelated to Britain’s blasphemy law. Return to the corrected sentence.