THE British like to think of themselves as a tolerant race, free from prejudice or racism and generally not prone to violence. Their country has, indeed, made strides in the past two decades towards developing an ethnically mixed society, and surveys show them to be less racist than continental neighbours such as Belgium and France. But this easy assumption has been severely shaken in the past weeks by a series of nail-bomb attacks in London, while the shooting of celebrated television presenter Jill Dando on her doorstep has served as a reminder of the violence that often lurks beneath the appearance of normality on the capital's streets - whether or not the alleged Serbian connection was involved. The first two bomb attacks were clearly racist in their motivation, targeted against black and Asian communities. The third attack, on Friday night, appears to have been aimed at the gay community. The most murderous of the attacks, it claimed three lives in a pub in the West End. Now there are fears of a fourth attack, aimed this time against the Jewish community in north London. The shocking nature of these attacks should not lead to any over-estimation of the weight of the extreme right in Britain today. Their groups are small and splintered, unable to win anything but the most minimal electoral support. They are very far from the well-organised far right movements that have dented mainstream politics in Austria, Italy, France and Russia. But what they lack in support, these groups make up for in the callous nature of their hatreds. There are now suggestions they should be made illegal. That reaction is entirely understandable, but to ban political organisations - however loathsome they may be - is to embark on a dangerous slope. Better to use the existing law to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of what are clearly illegal acts. The recent investigation into the handling of the murder of the young black man, Stephen Lawrence, has shown up London's Metropolitan police in a bad light. Strong and immediate police action could go some way towards restoring its reputation, and rebuilding bridges with the immigrant communities in the capital. Beyond that, the reign of fear which can be caused by a few men without any scruples must be checked by rigorous action before it spreads even further - and urgently.