Friday, July 07, 2006

A Year On, Thorny Questions Remain Over London Bombings

A year after four bombs killed 52 people, survivors are still waiting for a public investigation and security experts say the British government has not done enough to protect the public.

Rachel North was riding on the London subway from Kings Cross to Russell Square July 7, 2005 when a bomb exploded. That moment changed her life, North said, a year after the London bombings.

"I wish I could never think of it again, go to work, go to the hairdressers, go on vacation, do all the things I used to do, without it in the back of my mind," she said in a telephone interview. "But the fact is, people were blown apart next to me."

North, who goes by a pseudonym, began a blog for survivors, helped start a support group, Kings Cross United, and initiated an online petition to force the government to conduct a public inquiry.

"This is not about blame or politics," she said. "The big questions of our time, such as freedom, fear, security, they need to be debated in the public with everyone participating. And even if the government doesn't like the questions, it is us who are bearing the cost --we run the risks on the trains, buses and streets everyday. We want to know what happened and why."

Getting the answers to those questions is proving difficult. The British government says that such an investigation would be too expensive and be a distraction from the war on terrorism.

A communications disaster

But finding out what exactly happened on the busy afternoon in London one year ago, when four suicide bombers blew themselves up on three underground trains and a double-decker bus, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more, is just one part of the issue.

The realization that the city's communications systems broke down and increased the general chaos in the hours that followed the bombings has added to the sense of frustration among survivors and security experts.

"It was recognized 14 years ago that communications weren't working properly but they didn't spend the money to improve them," said Robert Ayers, a security analyst at the Chatham House, a London-based think-tank. "The first responders did great, but those at the top levels really dropped the ball."

In the days and months that followed, officials launched a manhunt for other conspirators, made arrests, passed laws to tighten security and help investigators with rooting out would-be terrorists. But security experts say the government's efforts have been inadequate.

Not enough

The British government has largely led the police and intelligence services to focus on internal threats, said Ayers, adding that they have attempted to recruit more members of the Muslim community and Asia specialists into their ranks.

But unlike the Americans, who after the September 11 attacks, launched an effort to better coordinate --and centralize -- anti-terrorism and emergency services efforts, the British agencies continue in the same manner as before, he said.

"They have a collaborative approach but there is no organization with final authority, a centralized budget or accountability," he said. "And they have not become better coordinated. One can't take a number of different institutions which work differently and with different mindsets and expect them to respond effectively in a moment of chaos."

Concerns over civil liberties

In the months after the bombings, the British government also passed further legislation to fight terrorism under the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 2005 and 2006. This included expanding police powers to stop and question people more easily, doubling the amount of days that suspects can be held with being charged to 28 days, the criminalization of the 'glorification' of terrorism and passing 'control orders' whereby suspects have to stay indoors for 18 hours a day and are not allowed to use mobile phones or the Internet.

Many have criticized the measures as dangerous and harming civil liberties. A British judge ruled last week that such control orders violate the European Convention on Human Rights. Even government officials are questioning the tactics.

“Terrorism-related powers should be used for terrorism-related purposes otherwise their credibility is severely damaged,” wrote Lord Carlile, the British government's advisor on terrorism, in his annual report published in June. “In a diverse community, the erroneous use of powers against people who are not terrorists is bound to damage community relations.”

And it has.

Hundreds of detentions and dozens of raids on Muslim homes have lead to few convictions in the past year but increased tension with the community, officials say.

It appears to be "nothing less than Israeli-style policies of collective punishment in which the Muslim community is being sacrificed and told to live in fear of being stopped or visited by the police," said an editorial in Muslim News, a monthly newspaper for Muslims living in Britain.

And now, that community, along with survivors and the general public are increasing their call for a public inquiry, not the closed-door "narrative" reports the government is offering.

"We will forgo closure to get justice"

Ayers says that a public inquiry, like the one in the US after September 11, is necessary to clear the air and allow victims to close the chapter.

"There is an innate mistrust in the public over what happened and what the government says happened," he said. "An inquiry could put to bed claims, counterclaims and conspiracy theories. And it could help alleviate survivors' suffering and give them closure."

But, survivors say they are not looking for closure but answers that could possibly save lives in the future.

"This is really hard for us -- it would be so much easier to put it all away," said North of the survivors' efforts to get a public inquiry.

"But we believe an inquiry can provide lessons that would save lives in the future. So we will forgo closure to get justice."

Jabeen Bhatti

Deutsche Welle 07/2006

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