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A ceremony that shows this government's real weakness

By turning private grief into a state occasion, we have granted terrorism not just a tactical victory; we have given it leverage

Simon Jenkins
Wednesday November 2, 2005
The Guardian

Yesterday's memorial service for the victims of the July 7 bombs was conducted with sensitivity and pomp. The survivors and their relatives, or most of them, were clearly content to share their grief with strangers and their loss with the nation. The Church of England does these things well.

Yet the event left me ill at ease. This was plainly a state occasion, not a private commemoration. It was a moment for monarch and prime minister, for prelates, mayors and policemen. It was a memorial to an event, with candles bearing the names of bombing venues. For all the always thoughtful words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, it was a political statement.

A terrorist bomb is not a battle in a war; that is what the terrorist's definition is. A bombing is a civil crime. The dead are not soldiers dying for their country. They are 52 random victims of what was, for them, a ghastly accident. They did not offer themselves to danger. Their families are entitled to compensation, long denied them by the ministers thronging St Paul's yesterday. But their grief is commemorated by those who know them and by the communities round them. Only the coincidence of their fate distinguishes them from hundreds of others killed in accidents in Britain each year. They get no similar memorial, nor do the mass victims of rail or plane crashes.

The decision to remember July 7 as a state occasion was taken, I am told, by Downing Street. The argument was that the bombs were an attack on London as a whole. It was a de facto act of war. The intention of the bombers was political, and the nation's response was thus collective. One relative was quoted yesterday as calling the service a debt of honour to those who died because of the government's Iraq policy.

Hence the presence of the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Tony Blair and other politicians, of representatives of the emergency services and of London's many faiths. The service was to show London's resilience. It was a moment, said the Bishop of London, to assert peace between London's diverse religious communities. Ever since the bombing there have been references to the blitz and to New York's experience of 9/11, to Blair's vision of July 7 as "London's 9/11". The service was not just a sharing of personal grief but evidence that "London can take it".

London has no need to prove this. The likelihood of a bomb attack was predictable, even by those (such as myself) who felt that the planted stories about ricin, anthrax, smallpox and "dirty bombs" before the invasion of Iraq were grotesque exploitations of public fear. London reacted to July 7 with an efficiency and a calm that contrasted with this scaremongering. The emergency services did their job, and appropriate sympathy was shown to the victims. There was no mass hysteria or boycott of public transport. Londoners did what New York's mayor Rudolph Giuliani failed to get his citizens to do after 9/11 - to "go to a show, take the kids to the park, do business as usual".

Since terrorism craves publicity, its best prophylactic is cold neglect. Giuliani called the 9/11 terrorists murderers, to be treated as murderers, their crimes as crimes. The July 7 killers did not constitute a political threat, only an explosive one. The killers' intention was to use their atrocity to further an argument within evangelical Islam. It was to do something that would win massive attention and thus invite government into a trap: to curb civil liberties, oppress minorities and so goad Muslims into the fundamentalist camp.

Ministers entered that trap. How the perpetrators of terror must have wanted to see candles labelled Aldgate, King's Cross, Edgware Road and Tavistock Square - their sickening battle honours - carried on high through the greatest church in the land. How they must have yearned to be associated with Britain's historic enemies under the dome of St Paul's, with Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Leopoldo Galtieri and, doubtless one day, Saddam Hussein. Is this really where we want these wretched people to be?

Awarding criminals political status, as happened in Northern Ireland, not only raises their self-esteem within their community, it also pollutes the attitude of government. Having elevated the potency of an enemy, a ruler feels the need to elevate his own. Since July 7, a battery of new laws has been sought by Downing Street, against free speech, freedom of assembly and habeas corpus. An astonishing 10bn is being found for identity cards. International human rights have been traduced. Torture evidence has been readmitted to British justice. Police powers under the Terrorism Act have been used against hecklers, demonstrators and assorted immigrants.

In other words, we have not only granted terrorism a tactical victory, by turning what might have remained a private grief into a state occasion. We have also granted it leverage. In Blair's words, we have let it "change the rules of the game". In this game, the winner is terrorism and the loser is the freedom it seeks to undermine.

In a posthumous essay published this month, the philosopher Bernard Williams calls forth the "liberalism of fear". This liberalism is not some erudite debate about rights and duties. It is a Hobbesian defence of weakness against power. It sees the abuse of power under all regimes, democratic and authoritarian, with equal trepidation, since "agents of all sorts of government will behave lawlessly and brutally ... unless they are prevented from doing so". Freedom from fear is thus the highest freedom. The liberal's duty is not utopian, merely to contain power.

Terrorism is the exploitation of fear. The bomber seeks to instil terror and thus to induce government into an equal and opposite repression. Each has an interest in exaggerating the potency of the other, in generating a "fear multiplier" to extend its reach. Nothing so distinguishes a strong government from a weak one as its awareness that this is dangerous. A liberal government does not hold the ring between fear and liberty. It defends liberty from fear in all its forms. It shuts down the bomber's echo chamber.

I sense that the prime minister and his colleagues have not the slightest sensitivity to this argument. They are the echo chamber. They nationalise grief and accord terrorism the respect of ceremony.