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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 17:48 GMT 18:48 UK
London bombs need calm response
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

London bus after explosion
Dozens died in Thursday's attacks on a bus and Tube trains

Last Monday, when I wrote here that it was going to be quite a week, I didn't know the half of it.

I thought it would all be about the G8 summit at Gleneagles and the announcement of the 2012 Olympics.

Last week the single most-used word on the main search engines of the world was 'London'.

Now that the bombs have exploded, and thousands of newspaper pages and entire days of air time have been devoted to the horror of it all, and to the poor, decent people who are dead and missing, and to the misguided criminals responsible, perhaps we can stand back from it all and catch our breath.

Communal therapy

In advanced societies, media overkill is a necessary part of getting over something like this.

After a while, even we journalists get tired of going over the same thing again and again, and slowly the grip which the horror has had on us relaxes. It's a form of communal therapy.

The huge crowds who watched and joined in Sunday's parade were London's answer to all the fear and anger and excitability of the past few days
Last week, when I listed the extraordinary events that were going to take place, I left one out: in some ways the most extraordinary of them all. It was the celebration to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Only three days after a savage series of bomb attacks in central London, half a million people turned out in the streets to applaud as the Queen, in an open car, led a parade of veterans down the Mall to Buckingham Palace.

When President Bush visited London last year, his security people insisted that the threat was so great he would have to drive in an armoured limousine from his apartments at the back of Buckingham Palace to a formal meeting with the Queen at the front of the building. If there is journalistic over-kill, there is also security over-kill.

Wounded passengers escorted from London Underground's Edgware Road station
The blasts caused panic across the capital
Fortunately the Metropolitan Police, who refused to close down the traffic in large parts of central London during President Bush's visit, advised the Queen last week that it would be entirely safe for her to parade slowly down the Mall in the open.

It's important to keep everything, even security, in proportion.

The huge crowds who watched and joined in Sunday's parade were London's answer to all the fear and anger and excitability of the past few days; a Churchillian hand-signal to the bombers.

Walking in the hot sunshine in the Mall with my family, I could see that the people round me felt much as I did: they were quietly celebrating their freedom. Not chanting or burning flags or screaming insults at enemies real or imagined, just enjoying themselves.

And if there were people who were stupid or inadequate enough to make threatening calls to Muslim organisations, or shout at Muslims in the street (or - such is their ignorance - at Sikhs as well) we saw no sign of them in the Mall.

Undercover killings

When the big IRA bombing campaign first hit London in the 1970s, a famous columnist of the time, Bernard Levin, advised his readers to respond to the bombs as a refined hostess might respond to a dinner-guest who belched loudly at the table: just ignore it, he said.

At the time it seemed to me effete and mannered. Now I see it was exactly the right advice.

The first British response to IRA violence was the worst. The IRA was identified as an enemy which had to be destroyed.

There are no short cuts to proper justice, just as there are no short cuts to decent government

In 1972, the British Army fired into the crowd at a big demonstration in the city of Derry, killing 14 innocent people.

There were undercover killings of IRA volunteers later, and a team of three IRA people were summarily executed when they were caught on an operation in Gibraltar.

All these things did was to convince many people in Northern Ireland that the British Government operated on the same low moral level as the IRA itself.

Fortunately, there was another strategy as well; and this one worked. It was to treat political violence like any other crime.

Painstaking police work caught the people who set the bombs; and when, in fits of panic and dishonesty, the wrong people were arrested and jailed, it was necessary to right the wrongs publicly - no matter how painful and damaging the results might be.

There are no short cuts to proper justice, just as there are no short cuts to decent government.

Slowly, people throughout Ireland realised that the IRA, and the Protestant militia groups which had grown up in imitation of them, had nothing to offer but violence and chaos. It was the effective end of the IRA.

Countering political violence isn't easy. It takes rigid self-discipline on the part of government and people. And it takes a degree of proportion and self-awareness too. Thursday was a terrible day for London; yet we mustn't forget that much the same number of people died that day in Iraq, and no one dedicated acres of newsprint to them.

We must hunt the bombers down, because they have committed a vicious crime against society. But we mustn't throw away the calm and self-possession which every decent society needs. It's not weakness; it's our greatest strength.

Your comments:

John Simpson, as ever, a voice of reason in a time of chaos.
David Knight, Fife, Scotland

Your comments are fair, reflective and cogent; and your advice is highly beneficial and full of edification. John, you're a credit to your profession. I'm so proud to be British.
Yahya, Bradford, UK

Very well said. I sometimes wonder whether I'll recognise my country after the politicians have put in place all their measures to stop the "evil people who want to destroy our way of life".
James Wilson-Fish, London

I work in Brazil and when I first saw the news of the bombings I was understandably outraged at the barbarity of it. What I didn't expect was the response from the engineer I was working with. He said "what did you expect?" His point was that the Americans had invaded Iraq to benefit from the rebuilding of the oil industry and this was repayment in kind for our standing alongside them. After some thought, it occurred to me that the French resistance during the Second World War was a response to the invasion by Germany. We of course aided their effort. We are expected to revile the insurgents in Iraq but in fact how do the two groups differ? When viewed from an independent position, things become a matter of perspective.
Garry Jelley, Milford Haven, Wales

This is great article by Mr Simpson. I am so touched by it. Those who are responsible for it are not Muslim, they are out of Islam.
Monir Hossain, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

I hate taking issue with John Simpson - but the media overkill gives more satisfaction to terrorists than it gives to the curious populace. People certainly want to know relevant facts, but a healthy democratic society best shows its mettle when it is able to carry on, as London has done so magnificently.
JG Vassallo, St Julians, Malta

Sorry John Simpson, you are totally wrong, we do not have a decent society. Look at what has happened and is happening in our villages, towns and cities. Decent ordinary people can no longer live a carefree life.
Marie Pudner, Burry Port Carmarthenshire

As usual Mr Simpson is dead on with his thoughts. I would just like to add that we must also work at correcting the wrongs that are the root of these evil deeds. We need to be fair and honest in our dealings with people. We need true charity. We need to treat others as equals no matter how unfortunate their circumstance.
Ron Neyvatte, Kincardine ON, Canada


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