Thursday, July 06, 2006

The week that rocked London

The first week of July last year was one that I and other Londoners will never forget. We experienced an emotional rollercoaster, travelling though the highs of Live 8 and the Olympic 2012 winning bid decision to the low of the largest number of fatalities from a bombing in the capital since the Second World War.

A sea of more than 200,000 fans formed in Hyde Park on 2 July to see stars such as U2, Madonna and Sir Elton John perform at Live 8.

The event’s objective was to put pressure on G8 Leaders, who were meeting at a summit at Gleneagles in Scotland that week, to tackle poverty in Africa. As the concert culminated with a finale of Paul McCartney singing the Beatles' Hey Jude, there was an overwhelming sense of comradeship in the crowd that a difference could be made.

On 6 July, Londoners waited patiently in a sunny Trafalgar Square for the announcement of the winning city of the 2012 Olympic bid. In the seconds before the announcement was made, you could hear a pin drop.

As it was revealed that London had beaten favourites Paris, balloons and confetti launched into the air and champagne corks popped. Red Arrow pilots took everyone by surprise in an unannounced fly-past leaving blue, red and white smoke trails. The jubilant celebrations were in stark contrast to the raindrops falling on disappointed Parisians outside their capital’s Hotel de Ville.

Tony Blair’s voice was quivering with emotion as he said it was a "momentous day for Londoners".

"It's not often in this job that you punch the air and do a little jig and embrace the person next to you," he said.

For Londoners, so used to delayed tube trains and disappointment, the news seemed too good to be true. We thought, could this be the start of a new golden era for the city?

The following morning, in the midst of rush hour, bombs exploded on three London underground trains within 50 seconds of each other. A fourth bomb exploded on a central London bus nearly an hour later.

Joy swiftly turned to sorrow and fear. Fifty-two innocent people and all four suicide bombers were killed plus 700 people were injured.

The London Olympic bid had emphasised the importance of multiculturalism. Ironically, within days of the explosions, it emerged the bombers were home-grown Muslim youths.

Much has changed for Londoners since 7 July. For me, commuting on the tube in the days following the bombings felt like being on a ghost train. Many Londoners walked or cycled rather than use public transport.

In the weeks following the bombings there was a huge increase in police presence on the tube. There appeared to be more police in than commuters at King’s Cross, where the bombers had entered the tube on that deadly date.

A second series of tube and bus explosions on 21 July, where the explosive charges failed to detonate, warned Londoners that 7 July was not a one-off.

Apprehensive stares at people’s bags became commonplace on the underground. Ethnic minorities of all creeds were victims of suspicious glances.

Since the bombings, police shootings of two innocent men, one of them fatally, in anti-terrorist operations, have damaged public confidence in the Met.

Police say they have prevented three major terrorist attacks since 7 July. But despite more than 12,000 leads being followed, not a single person has been convicted in connection with the attacks.

New anti-terrorism legislation, including doubling the time terrorism suspects can be held without charge to 28 days and criminalising incitement to commit a terrorist act, have been introduced by a government keen to be seen to be acting tough on terrorism. But measures have been diluted in the face of backlash from politicians and judges who believe people’s civil rights are threatened.

As the weather turned colder in the autumn, commuters returned to the tube. Walking through London’s busy streets this summer, it’s hard to imagine how the attacks brought the city to standstill.

Most people realise there could be another attack at any time, but haven’t stopped embracing all the city has to offer. The stiff upper lip British attitude ‘things must go on’ has been pervasive.

The sense of elation of winning the Olympics felt on 6 July has never returned. It’s just been down to business. An inquiry has heard London’s timetable to be ready for the games is "extremely tight". Legal wranglings are underway over the compulsory purchase orders of land for the Olympic site.

As for the influence Live 8 has had, Bob Geldof told the BBC last week, that G8 countries are "all off track" in meeting the commitments. The London bombings swiftly shifted the public’s attention from the cause, a sad and no doubt unintended ramification of the tragic events.

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