When blasts rocked Mumbai, the shock and awe was felt across London. This is a metropolis where the blasts of July 7 continue to reverberate, despite the overt sense of normality. Londoners connected with Mumbai as never before. Until recently, events of terrorism happening elsewhere in the world would not evoke much connection with the British public.
Having faced mass terrorism in recent years?first through September 11 and then July 7, besides the train bombings in Madrid?people in the West are now more sympathetic to such incidents in the non-Western world.
In several ways, the bombings in London and Mumbai were similar. Both happened on key lines of mass transport?the underground Tube in London and the arterial local network in Mumbai. The London bombers were all homegrown?born and raised in Britain. The investigation into the Mumbai blasts may throw up similar results. And both metros reacted to the blasts in largely similar ways?soon after the blasts, the people quickly returned to their normal schedules even though a bit more cautiously than ever.
Since July 7, the Tony Blair government has tried to bring extra legislation to deal with such threats. However, legislation that could be seen to curtail civil liberties faced considerable hurdles in Parliament and elsewhere, with the result that the new clauses had to be diluted before they could be passed. The laws relate to incitement to religious violence, the number of days that suspects can be held in custody without charge and so forth. Efforts were also made to further tighten rules in the financial sector so that money intended for terrorist activities does not have a smooth run through banks and other channels.
Within the framework of democracy and civil rights, the British government has initiated measures to prevent incidents such as the July 7 bombings. One year after July 7, the police announced that it had prevented a few repeats of mass terrorism. For the first time, the British government has decided to make public the level of threat in force on any given day. The threat levels are to be announced on the websites of the Home Office and the intelligence agency, M I5. The levels of alert have been reduced from seven levels to five?low, moderate, substantial, severe and critical. The new system combines the threats ?severe general? and ?severe defined? into a single ?severe? category, and gets rid of the previous lowest status ?negligible?.
A cross-party Intelligence and Security Committee(ISC) called for a more transparent warning system. The committee highlighted that the threat level had been reduced from ?severe general? to ?substantial? prior to the London attacks, and said the old system had provided ?inappropriate reassurance? to the public. The new UK scheme closely resembles the one in the US, launched in March 2002, which has five colour-coded levels.
July 7 led to more incidents of Asians being stopped and searched by the police. The Asian community, particularly the large minority of Muslims, felt more vulnerable as many Muslims were subject to verbal and physical abuse. But the united stance taken by the UK police, government and community leaders limited the backlash against Muslims. According to a report by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism (EUMC), the increase in hate crimes against Muslims was temporary and incident levels soon fell. In fact, the report says that the bombings prompted a broader public debate across Europe about bringing communities together.
EUMC director Beate Winkler said the attacks in London made many British Muslims feel vulnerable. ?The strong lead given by UK ministers, police and community leaders, both in condemning the attacks and in insisting that any acts against the wider Muslim community would be dealt with firmly, has had the right result,? she said.
The report also found that other EU governments helped prevent a wider backlash against Muslims by making a clear the distinction between the acts of the bombers and the Muslim faith.
?The united stand taken across Europe in the face of the bomb attacks has been an excellent example of cohesion and unity in action,? said Winkler.
?The report says that although it may still be too early to say, the impact of the July 7, bombings on the lives of Muslims has not been as significant as the September 11, attacks on the US in 2001. The report praised initiatives in EU countries to help combat Islamophobia.
According to a recently released parliamentary committee report on the July 7 blasts, Britain'snational standards for counter-terrorism need to be improved. Plans to merge police forces should not remove policing from its local roots and undermine knowledge at a local level, it said. More needs to be done to improve joint security service and special branch efforts on the ?home-grown? threat.
The report says: ?Greater coverage in Pakistan, or more resources generally in the UK, might have alerted the (security) agencies to the intentions of the July 7 group.? It adds that any threat is as likely to come from those who appear well assimilated into mainstream UK society, with jobs and young families, as from those within socially or economically deprived sections of the community.
(The writer is a senior journalist based in London.)