It is mid-morning in Paddington, one of London’s main rail stations, and the platforms are crowded with people. Several men in black uniforms and black hats stand out – policemen carrying machine guns and patrolling with a fierce eye.
A voice booms over the public address system: “if you see anything or anyone suspicious, report it to the British Transport Police. See it, say it, sorted.”
Welcome to Britain in the aftermath of the bombing in Manchester last Monday, when Salman Abedi, a Muslim Briton of Libyan origin, detonated a suicide bomb at the end of a music concert, killing 22 people and injuring 59 others.
The government of Theresa May sent armed soldiers onto the streets for the first time since 2003, when tanks and 450 soldiers were sent to guard airports after warnings of a plot to bring down an aircraft. Now they are patrolling outside Buckingham Palace, major government buildings and other key locations.
On Tuesday, the day after the attack, May raised the terror threat level from “severe” to “critical”, the highest level, meaning that an attack was imminent. This is the first time since 2007, when a blazing car loaded with gas was driven into Glasgow airport.
She also ordered armed police to patrol railway stations like Paddington that are a likely target, as well as on the trains themselves, a first. Officers who raided the home of Salman Abedi in Manchester discovered a bomb factory with a huge stash of explosive chemicals and other components, leading to fears that he had made other devices and given them to fellow radicals in Britain.
Despite these dramatic developments, members of the public were sanguine. “It reminds me of the 1970s when the IRA [Irish Republican Army] set off bombs in Britain,” said Mary Walsh, a retired woman arriving in Paddington for a concert. “After the bombing, I thought twice about going to this concert. But the audience will only be small. The event will not attract attention, I hope. We have to go on with our normal lives.”
David Saunders said that he went through Paddington every day on his way to work. “Yes, this is a possible target for an attack. Many places are – train stations, the subway, airports or major public buildings. But we must continue with our daily life. I do not think about bombs. What good does worrying do?”
Tom Davies, the owner of a small furniture company, said that there was no need to be concerned. “The media is reporting too much about this, making people nervous. Look around you, people are continuing their daily life.”
The streets around Paddington were packed with people, British and foreign, residents and visitors. “The bomb attack has had no impact on our bookings,” said Susan Valencia, a manager at the Park Grand Hotel near the station. “We are almost full up for the next week.”
On Saturday (May 27), organisers held football and rugby cup finals in London, each attracting crowds of more than 70,000. The fans were not deterred from attending.
The attack has reopened a debate on why the security services were unable to pre-empt it, despite being warned on several occasions about Abedi by his friends and the Libyan exile community in Manchester.
In response, the security services said they had uncovered 18 attacks since 2013, including five in the last two months. They said that they were running 500 active investigations, involving 3,000 potential suspects. They do not have sufficient manpower to follow all the suspects 24 hours a day; it is hard to pinpoint when a person with radical sympathies becomes a risk to public safety.
The attack caused a four-day suspension of campaigning in Britain’s general election, to be held on June 8. The campaigning resumed on Friday and the bombing immediately became a central issue.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party which is trailing in the opinion polls, said in a speech on Friday: “We must be brave enough to admit that the ‘war on terror’ is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.”
Corbyn said that British military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya had fuelled anti-British sentiments in these countries. People must consider the causes of terrorism as well as the results, he said. He said recently that Britain had not fought a just war since 1945; he has consistently voted to oppose military action against Islamic State.
For this, he was attacked by May, leader of the ruling Conservative Party. She accused Corbyn of “making excuses” for Abedi. “He has said that the terrorist attacks on Britain are our own fault,” she told a news conference on Friday. “There can never be excuses for terrorism. There can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester.”
Before the attack, May’s Conservative party was about 10 percentage points ahead in the opinion polls. The public anger that has followed is likely to help her to a comfortable victory.
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