When the bombs ripped through three underground trains and one of those familiar red London double-decker buses this morning, the first thought of almost everyone from the travelers who witnessed the incident to the G8 leaders assembled in Gleneagles, from Tony Blair to President George W. Bush, from the Queen of England to the new pope, was to denounce the bombings as acts of barbaric depravity.
The second thought ran: This was bound to happen sooner or later. After 30 and more years of terrorism, barbarism has become commonplace. Since September 11, we have expected that those behind that atrocity would strike again. And as the British authorities have repeatedly warned, they believed that places in Britain would be among the first targets to be attacked.
Precisely because of this prudent expectation, the London authorities had planned for this assault and, if first reports are an accurate guide, they responded with both efficient preparations and intelligent improvisation. As soon as the bombs went off, they closed down the transport systems. They used buses–which were readily at hand–to deliver the wounded to hospitals rather than waiting for ambulances. And knowing that the Madrid bombings had been triggered by mobile phones, they shut down the mobile-phone system all over the city.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who happened to be nearby in Liverpool Street Station when the explosions occurred, will doubtless have useful comments to make on how the various British authorities coped with the emergency. Unless he and we are given new and adverse evidence, however, the initial verdict is likely to stand: The third great assault by Islamist terrorists on a great Western city produced not panic and disorder but calm on the part of ordinary Londoners, the customary courage of the emergency services, and efficient management by those directing them.
This is actually more significant than the bombings themselves. We do not write that lightly–we know that several hundred homes in and around London will be darkened tonight and for many days henceforth by this cruel crime. Fathers have been murdered, mothers wounded, sons gone “missing,” daughters orphaned. We will not even know how many victims have perished for days–the bus packed with passengers was all but vaporized a moment later. Our first response should be to kneel down and pray for God’s mercy on the souls that were ripped so untimely from this life. We are horribly aware of the magnitude of the crime and the tragedy of the lost and maimed.
Yet Britain is not “burning with fear and terror,” as the group claiming to have murdered these innocent people alleges on an Islamist website. That allegation represents what the terrorists hope and calculate will be the response of its victims. The victory of the Spanish socialists in last year’s general election, two days after the Madrid bombing, at least seemed to validate that calculation. Spain withdrew its troops from Iraq shortly afterward in what the terrorists inevitably concluded was a concession suing for peace. Nothing like that has happened in Britain. In addition to the self-disciplined response of Londoners on the spot, the remarks of Prime Minister Blair, opposition Tory leaders, and other public figures have all struck a note of determined defiance.
No doubt, politics as usual will return after a time and those opposed to the Iraq war will cite today’s events as a consequence of the Anglo-American invasion. Democracy is about fierce and unrestricted debates over even the most sensitive topics. But the sensible center of British politics–not the Liberal Democrats but the right of the Labour party and the mainstream of the Tories–is likely to hold firm in the face of these arguments and to demand even firmer prosecution of the war against terrorism. Merely holding firm, however, is not enough.
What Britain and America need are some clear and visible victories in this war–terrorist groups broken up, would-be assassins captured and incarcerated, terrorist leaders tried and either imprisoned indefinitely or executed. Wars are not won by responding bravely to attacks from the other side, but by inflicting defeats on them.
Today the terrorists scored a typically vile success, but they were denied a victory by the courage of our allies. Now we know–indeed, we never doubted–that Britain can take it. But Britain and America have to show that we can also dish it out.