ENGLAND — It was classic British understatement: “We advise you not to travel by train into central London.” That’s how my overnight transatlantic flight was greeted at the gate at Heathrow on Thursday, 10 minutes after the first terrorist bomb. Once we were finally allowed into the arrivals area at Terminal 3, the other shoe immediately dropped. The terminal was drowning in snippets of information, rumor, fear, and bewilderment. News quickly spread about more bombs having gone off. No one knew how many bombs, where, or how many casualties.
As I reached my car, BBC radio was reporting the complete shutdown of all public transit in and out of London: trains, buses, and the Underground; the famous tube. Within a few hours, Heathrow’s Terminal 3 was evacuated. Luckily, my journey took me around, rather than through, London, so I arrived at my conference in the idyllic Sussex countryside having avoided much of the transportation nightmare that would dominate the rest of the average Londoner’s day.
I was the first conference participant to arrive. In a scene reminiscent of the one that played out throughout America in the hours immediately after the attacks of September 11, I found the entire staff glued to a TV set, everyone trying to comprehend the developing horror and ensuing chaos.
It was highly personal stuff. You’d be hard pressed to find a Briton who doesn’t have family or friends living or working in London. As in America on 9/11, personal communication was close to nonexistent. Even outside London, phone lines were down and cell phones didn’t work. No one who spent several hours on 9/11 literally out of touch with loved ones ever wanted to relive that experience. On Thursday, I got the chance.
Each morning around 9 o’clock my sister transfers onto the same train from Kings Cross station — the very first train to be bombed. Finally, someone’s cell phone was working and, with a borrowed phone, I spent several anxious hours trying to reach her. The official government statements weren’t reassuring. Authorities kept telling viewers that only two people had died, but the television screens clearly put the lie to that estimate.
Finally, my sister answered the phone. She’d been running a few minutes late that morning and had just missed her train. Thank God. In the company of many thousands of dazed and frightened fellow commuters, my sister spent several hours in a futile attempt to make her way home.
She walked through a city that wasn’t empty but was eerily quiet. Despite their experience with Irish terrorism, Londoners were stunned. The IRA would, on occasion, give a warning and generally favored hard targets such as politicians and the security services. This was an attack on soft targets, without warning. It will take some time for the largest attack on British soil since the end of World War II to really sink in.
A day later, everything is different. I may be situated in an isolated country house, but bomb-sniffing police dogs are patrolling the conference grounds. London itself is largely back to work but far from back to normal. Just as Washington and New York haven’t quite felt the same post-9/11, so too London, post-7/7. You can see it on the faces.
What Britons can’t see is the enemy. From the late ’60s to the late ’90s, every young Irishman was suspect. Today, the enemy doesn’t speak with an Irish accent; today, he may carry a Koran. Britain’s intelligence services know of at least 200 British-born Muslims who’ve traveled to Afghanistan for terrorist training before returning home to Britain. The authorities concede that the true number may be closer to a few thousand.
How will newly multicultural Britain deal with what may prove to be a homegrown problem? The small slice of second-generation British Muslim society that is far more radical than the previous generation poses a very difficult dilemma for Tony Blair, whose instincts regarding cultural and religious tolerance mirror those of President Bush. If current suspicions are confirmed — that is, Thursday’s terror was al Qaeda’s handiwork and there was domestic participation — I fear that the voice of the nationalist far right will receive a most unwelcome infusion of political oxygen.
Blair is fortunate that the attacks occurred soon after, instead of before, this year’s election. Although the majority of voters wouldn’t have changed allegiances in defiance of the terrorists, additional slippage away from Labour to the anti-war Liberal Democrats would have made Blair’s electoral position far more tenuous than it is today.
Within a day, the G8 summit was back on its unfortunate track. The G8 agreed to make a bad policy worse by doubling the money sent to corrupt African governments. The conventional wisdom is that terrorism in both Africa and the Middle East reflects, in part, a lack of economic development.
Western leaders clearly remain ignorant of the fact that the undeveloped world’s hopes rest with an injection of full-blooded capitalism rather than another dose of the same old socialist medicine. Their inability to learn obvious lessons doesn’t bode well for the continued prosecution of their war on terror — wherever that terror is felt.