Random thoughts on the London bombings

In no particular order…

* Most of the fatalities occurred on the Piccadilly tube line between King’s Cross station and Russell Square. This happens to be the line I invariably use when I come to London.

* On Tuesday evening, I was one of the invited participants at a seminar in LSE on media and the reporting of terrorism. The seminar was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, which dictates that while one can write about what was discussed, one cannot reveal who said what. Participants included some very senior government officials and experienced journalists specialising in security issues. The discussion was pretty sombre, much of it focussed on the difficulty of practising responsible journalism in an area where it’s often impossible to verify or corroborate what security authorities say about terrorist threats. A key issue, some felt, was the gap between (i) official fears about the extent of the terrorist threat and (ii) public complacency engendered by the fact that none of the dire eventualities had come to pass. I came away from the seminar convinced that official concern was justified — that while there might be rivalries and infighting between security agencies, nevertheless they were broadly telling the truth. I walked to Holborn and boarded the Piccadilly line train to King’s Cross. The first station after Holborn is… Russell Square.

* After today, public perceptions about the reality of the threat will have changed radically. An irresponsible government could exploit this ruthlessly.

* There was much discussion in the seminar of parallels between contemporary terrorism and IRA terrorism of the period 1970 – 1995. At the beginning, the security services were poor at assessing and countering the IRA threat, but over the years they raised their game and became much better at it. I got the distinct impression that, in relation to Al Qaeda, the British security services are currently at a stage analogous to where they were with the IRA in the 1970s.

* One fascinating development was the way passengers in the tube trains used the video-recording facilities of their mobile phones to film compelling video sequences, many of which were screened on the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News. This is the first time we’ve seen the technology used to such good effect.

* The relative calm and absence of panic among victims was remarkable. Londoners are a tough bunch. My guess is, though, that the next few days will see mass cancellation of vacation bookings by Americans, who despite the gung-ho militarism of their society, seem pathologically nervous as individuals.

* The response and efficiency of the London emergency services was amazing. All those disaster training and simulation exercises have clearly paid off.

* The first thing I did was to make a list of those I knew and cared about in London and then started to check that they were ok. The mobile network in London was shut down by the authorities so that only those with special SIM cards could communicate for a time. But email worked just fine. Only one person in my immediate circle was affected — she was in a tube train which was attacked and was taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation, but is basically ok.

* I’m lecturing in London next week, and looking forward to it. Nil carborundum and all that. I’ll probably have to walk from King’s Cross though. Can’t imagine that they will get the tunnel fixed in time.