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You are in: London > TV > Television > TV Features > What's the risk to London?

Kurt Barling

BBC London's Kurt Barling

What's the risk to London?

In the first of a series of articles on life in London, BBC London's Special Correspondent Kurt Barling looks at the risks facing residents in the capital on the fourth anniversary of 9/11

On the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers Kurt Barling looks at the Risks Londoners’ face.

Holidays over, tan fading, children trudging through the school gates again.  This year getting back into the swing of London life brings with it an element of risk that we happily thought we’d overcome with political good fortune in Northern Ireland.

And it's Londoners’ attitude to risk that will determine how we fare emotionally before the next mass holiday exodus.   Since the 7 July bombings an academic at Kings College, Dr Neil Greenberg, has conducted a piece of research which suggests 50% of us feel our lives are now in danger.   One third of commuters into the capital are suffering levels of increased stress and one in three individuals is less likely to use public transport.

Recent natural disasters re-awaken our awareness of our vulnerability.  It also reminds us of the nature of risk.   Those in New Orleans and along the US Gulf Coast slowly getting to grips with Katrina’s devastation will now have to weigh up the real risk of losing everything again if they are to stay. 

Already in the place where putting a price on risk is an art form - the London insurance market - frantic meetings have been taking place to work out just how big the losses are going to be.  Some losses may be too great for individual companies to bear.   London itself has to consider anew the risk of flooding as the Thames Barrier approaches the end of its working life.

Gulfport after Hurricane Katrina struck

Gulfport after Hurricane Katrina struck

I spent my family break in Portugal this year and there man-made natural disasters have got the Portuguese really wound up.  Dozens of forest wild fires have destroyed all in their path and there have been many deaths and much loss of property. 

Portuguese fire-fighters have been overwhelmed and have called for assistance – and got it – from the French, Spanish and Germans.  All these countries have had plenty of practice of assessing the risks of both natural and man induced disasters.

Driving back to Lisbon on our way back to the UK I bumped into a German woman from Berlin in the forests around the Algarve town of Monchique.  She pricked me out of my relaxed holiday state of mind.  She was eager to know how worried I was about going home to London.  Lots of other visiting Londoners had expressed real anxiety. 

To be honest I rather dodged her question.  I turned it back on her and asked how she had felt when the Baader Meinhof atrocities of the seventies had brought palpable fear to the cities of the then West Germany.  Not to mention the Berlin neurosis of the risk of Russian tanks rolling into free Berlin prior to 1989.   It was a roundabout way of telling her whilst I wasn’t very happy, like most people I’d have to get on with my life.  In short, I would keep reassessing the risk.

Let’s not forget that 10 years ago Islamic terrorists associated with the Algerian GIA (the Muslim fundamentalist movement) launched a deadly bombing campaign on the Paris Metro.   The French capital practically wilted under the strain of successive and ever deadlier bombings, fear paralysing many Parisians.

It was around 1995 that French intelligence services began to dub our city “Londonistan”.   This is where many experts believe our current troubles really began.

Some of the Metro bombings had London links and the French saw increasing numbers of Muslim radicals congregating freely in London’s mosques.  They gathered intelligence on some of the men now being held by the British authorities. 

Twin Towers after 9/11 attacks

World Trade Center after 9/11 attacks

They alleged, for example, that a man called Rachid Ramda had acted as a banker to some of those later jailed for the bombings in France from his flat in Wembley. 

Curiously enough after nearly 10 years he remains on remand in Belmarsh maximum security prison awaiting extradition to Paris where he faces charges relating to those 1995 Paris bombings.  The families of the victims of the Paris bombings are not best pleased with the time it has taken - and they’re still waiting - to put the allegations to Ramda in open court. 

Over the years I’ve interviewed a number of the survivors and families of victims and one of their biggest concerns has remained the search for justice in knowing exactly why it happened and who carried the bombings out.
Spain of course has had to suffer similar consequences of terrorism at the hands of the Basque separatists, ETA, as we have from the Republicans.   Ordinary Londoners became adept at assessing the risks whilst the IRA, planted bombs in post boxes and shot up swanky restaurants and department stores, creating conditions not unlike the Blitz in some parts of the capital particularly during the 1974-75 campaign. 

Airport style checks remain unrealistic and they always miss something.  We were reminded of this on our way back through Lisbon airport.  My 11 year old son tried to figure out how the scissors in his pencil case that security confiscated there - after much to do - had managed to bypass Heathrow’s famed security system on the way out.  

I guess if Lisbon airport shows anything, it is that risk can only be managed but never eliminated.   There are those who have argued more eloquently elsewhere that we have increasingly become a more risk averse society, so I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but suffice it to say that much of what we fear is directly proportionate to the way we individually assess the risks we face. 

Part of the desired psychological effect of planting the bombs is possibly to induce ordinary Londoners to suspend the faculty for assessing the risk, clouding our judgment with the fear that uncertainty brings.   Fear is what the enemies of our open city need most.   

In that sense it’s perhaps worth trying to put into a historical perspective the threat we now face.  The threat is real and different from - but arguably no worse than - the IRA bombing campaign of 1974-75, carried out by the way by a cell that preferred to go on killing others rather than killing themselves.

The fear is certainly not yet at levels experienced in Paris 10 years ago.   Once we remember how to assess the risk and conquer the fear - and become more vigilant to boot - we’ll return our city at the level of normality we’d become used to. 

last updated: 15/05/2008 at 16:50
created: 08/09/2005

Have Your Say

Let us know your views about some of the comments raised here regarding your sense of security in London

The BBC reserves the right to edit comments submitted.

Nicol Reiter
The lady you met from Berlin was trying to tell you something. Concentrate on developing a government that doesn’t make the problems worse. Make changes for the better, learn from your mistakes and try to correct them. You may win the peace. The scale of the recent natural disasters distracts people away from problems that they can solve. The English during WWII were able to take on and defeat the Nazi war machine because they had the will to pull together the allies and win. This current situation is totally different and needs a very different approach. A coalition smashing into Iraq etc. makes it all worse, adding to problems of the Middle East, adding to are own. Governments acting without the full support of their voters in the USA and the UK and elsewhere is obviously not the sort of freedoms we fought WWII for in the first place. Writing articles about fear management is time wasted which could be far better spent answering pertinent questions honestly instead of dodging them, even if she was from Berlin.

Michael Aylward
Dear Editor, drug money-laundering is the lifeblood of criminals and terrorists. Please be aware that London will never be a safer place whilst incompetent "Las Vegas style" casino gaming operators are protected by the criminally ignorant (Thatcher/Reagan) British/American Gaming Regulations. Please be aware that London is the only European capital city where the European gambling game called Roulette is not tolerated or allowed to compete. We are not safe, or ever will be, whilst our politicians fear and conceal the truth from the public. Thank you.

Wes Lomax
It is becoming increasingly tiresome reading that 'fear is our only enemy' and 'only if we are brave in the face of adversity will we win through'. Londoners have no choice but to go about their daily lives, no choice whatsoever. To not do so would put most people in to a fate worse than death, poverty. These terrorists will continue to attack us, freely and easily, while we shuffle along, hoping it doesn't happen to us. Who needs fear eh?

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