I was in London on September 11, 2001, watching with millions of others as the planes brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
That evening I met an old acquaintance in the British security establishment. Even at that early stage he was convinced that it was Al Qaeda that had staged the attacks on Washington and New York. Obviously I could not help asking him whether London could be the next target.
"Of course it will!" he responded in the most matter of fact manner imaginable. Then he thought for a moment before he continued, "The crucial difference shall be that we will be better prepared. New York was caught on the back foot." (This was quite true; several of the emergency centres prepared by the city fathers to cope with just such a disaster had their headquarters in, ironically, the World Trade Center.)
Today, I have to admit that he was right on both counts -- London has indeed come under attack and Londoners have indeed handled themselves better than their cousins across the Atlantic.
That, to those with a sense of history, comes as no surprise. In World War II, France surrendered Paris to the Nazis rather than let that beautiful city come under German bombardment. London refused to bend the knee. In the face of an aerial blitzkreig which reduced even the House of Commons to rubble, the British capital defiantly coined the slogan 'London can take it'. I doubt if six explosions, no matter how powerful, could shake Londoners.
Nor is London unique in maintaining its cool in the face of terror. I have vivid memories of Bombay twelve years ago. I was having lunch in a hotel next to the Air-India Building when the series of explosions immortalised today as the Bombay Blasts shook the city. The answer from India's commercial capital came the next morning; a gigantic banner hanging from the roof of the same building proclaimed that it was back to business. Whatever the financial costs of rebuilding the physical damage I remember thinking at that moment that the terrorists had lost the war of nerves.
Terrorism is a tactic designed not to win territory but to shake the confidence of civilian targets where they are supposedly most vulnerable -- their sense of security and their pocket. It was no coincidence whatsoever that terrorists attacked the financial districts of New York and Mumbai.
The bomb blasts in Bali a couple of years ago hit the night clubs in an effort to derail the tourist trade that is the lifeblood of that Indonesian island. Whether it is attacking schoolchildren in Russia or pilgrims in India, the effort is always the same -- to gain the psychological upper hand.
The London Underground system is a soft target. With thousands of people using it at any given time during the day, it is an easy matter to place a suitcase or a plastic bag containing explosive substances in some nook. (As it would be on, say, a DTC bus in Delhi or a suburban train in Mumbai or Chennai.)
I am sure the British security establishment anticipated the attacks, the only question was whether the Londoners of today could face the assault with the equanimity that their grandparents demonstrated to Hitler.
It was no coincidence that the London Blasts came precisely the day after the city won the bid to stage the Olympics in 2012. It was meant to be a sharp drop from the euphoria of edging out Paris and New York to a climate of fear and uncertainty. The terrorists have, by all accounts, failed.
It is too soon, however, for the West to pat itself on the back. If the terrorists have failed in their ultimate aim so too has the West. Al Qaeda seems to have more admirers, more supporters, and more cadres today in the Middle East than it did in 2001. Surely that wasn't the intended result of the 'War on Terror'!
I cannot end without thinking about Ayodhya, the site of another terrorist attack a mere 48 hours before the London Blasts. To my mind, the assault on one of Hinduism's most sacred shrines is of even greater import than the explosions in the British capital. The London Blasts were the handiwork of a few cowards who did no more than place a few packages in places before fleeing to safety.
In Ayodhya, the degree of fanaticism was so great that the militants were perfectly willing to die if they could strike a blow at the psyche of Hindus across the world. How long will it be before Europe too shall witness the fury of fundamentalism at its worst?
There is another thing that needs to be said. In the face of the London Blasts, the British political establishment closed ranks immediately to condemn terrorism with one voice. The aftermath of the sacrilege at Ayodhya has been one where the Congress, the Samajwadi Party, and the Bharatiya Janata Party indulge in a blame game. Couldn't they all just keep quiet and save the mudslinging for another day?