Looking beyond the pall of smoke

August 12, 2005

As London rebounds from July's terror attacks, Kevin Fong considers the difficult task facing academics striving to understand the motives of those responsible

Is that the broken bus?" My three-year-old niece is pointing at the cover of the British Medical Journal , at a photograph of the wreckage of the ill-fated number 30. Even at that age she has picked up something of the enormity of events.

The attacks of 7/7 were close to home for all of us. Especially so at University College London, from whose main campus the Tavistock Square explosion was audible, whose teaching hospital received many of the casualties and whose staff were among the victims. I spent the that morning in the accident and emergency department at University College Hospital and the night on the neurosurgical intensive care unit. Retrospectively, the major incident plans worked well, but at the time it seemed like nothing short of chaos. We are now just beginning to go through the hospital admissions details and the patterns of injury, trying to see what could be improved. Trawling literature and cataloguing injuries from other terrorist events makes uncomfortable reading, but it is necessary if we are to learn all we can.

There has been much written on the resilience of London. But the city has changed in the wake of those attacks. There are apparently 50,000 more cyclists on our streets, happier to take their chances with the juggernauts than their fellow Underground commuters. The benign bobby appears to have been replaced almost entirely by firearms officers bearing machine pistols. And there is the uncomfortable silence on the Tube and on the buses and the absurd phenomenon of people choosing their seats according to the ethnicity and luggage count of people in their immediate vicinity.

These are the understandable gut reactions of a terrorised city, but in time, no doubt, London will return to normal.

Elsewhere, the finger-pointing has already started. It would appear that at least one of the bombers was a graduate of a British university. This news, coupled with the forthcoming report on extremism on university campuses by Anthony Glees, director of Brunel University's Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, brings terrorism home to us. It is suggested that the liberal, multicultural melting pots of our campuses might serve as the crucibles of terrorist recruitment.

When the dust has settled, elements of the academic community will have a difficult part to play. Their role is to step back, find objectivity, to deconstruct and guide analysis - but above all to find themselves immune from the hysteria and the hype. If the roots of terrorism are to be understood, it must be done without the clouds of emotive overlay. In the hours and days immediately after the attack, everything seemed somehow different: London more dangerous and our everyday lives less important. This, as we all know, is what they want - whoever "they" are or claim to be.

The enduring image of this atrocity will continue to be that "broken bus" and the blood-spattered walls of British Medical Association House.

I tell my niece that the picture is indeed of the bus she has seen on the television. She pauses for a few seconds, taking in the strange image, recognising perhaps that there is more to this than she can comprehend. But she is three and her attention is easily lost. It is cathartic to watch her later, running around the garden, carrying on as children do, regardless and relentless, reminding me that I should do the same.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London and a junior doctor.

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