I’ve had a comment which deserves a full response
It was basically complaining at my rather off-hand dismissal of American fears of and reactions to terrorism. (For the full comment, which is reasonably argued, and should really be read in full before reading this post, see here.) I’m sorry if this goes on a bit, but it sort of has to.
I’ll quote the final bit, and then make a few basic retorts: “please, spare us the sarcasm and self-righteousness. And indulge our paranoia and our desire to protect our diplomats and citizens; our apprehension is not without basis.”
I’m writing a semi-anonymous political blog. Of course the tone is self righteous. But enough with the glib…
America has had the constant threat of terrorist attacks for three years. In London (and Britain as a whole) we’ve had it for thirty. We know what it’s like. I know what it’s like:
On 12th October 1984, a few miles from my house, a massive IRA bomb blew a huge chunk out of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, nearly wiping out the entire government. I remember seeing Norman Tebbit pulled from the rubble. I remember the dazed, dust-covered faces of the conference delegates as they stumbled onto the street. It was my first experience of terrorism.
On 30th July 1990, my MP – the great man who was Ian Gow – was blown up outside his house by the IRA. He lived less than two hundred yards from the primary school my brother had attended. He lived next door to one of my best friends. My friend found pieces – yes, pieces - of Mr Gow in his treehouse, thirty yards from where the carbomb detonated.
On 9th February 1996 I was on my way up to London to check out my future university and meet my uncle for dinner in the evening, once he’d finished work at the Sunday Telegraph at Canary Wharf. The IRA had other ideas. For several hours we had no idea whether he was alive or dead. He thankfully wasn’t. But nonetheless this got my grandmother, who worked as a nurse in London throughout the Blitz, so worried that I might be killed that she started trying to bribe me to go to university elsewhere. This coming from someone who experienced London when thousands of bombs were going off a day...
On 30th April 1999 I was meant to be in Soho, visiting a movie memorabilia store in Brewer Street with a couple of friends. Afterwards we were going to head to a pub in Greek Street, passing down Old Compton Street to get there. Instead we decided to get drunk. Just as well, because otherwise we would have been walking past the Admiral Duncan when the nailbomb went off. For once, it wasn’t the IRA, just some right-wing lunatic. He still caused a lot of death and injury.
On 2nd August 2001, the "Real IRA" detonated a bomb outside a pub in West London. It thankfully injured nobody seriously, but came on the back of an attack on the MI6 building the previous September and a bomb attack on the BBC a few months earlier. I, and everyone I know, spent the next few weeks worried about every car we passed.
On 11th September 2001 I, like countless others, watched in horror as the World Trade Centre smoked. I saw the second plane hit on live television. I saw both towers collapse. My reactions were the same as yours, and words cannot do justice. What some American readers may not realise is that there was panic in London as well. An investment banker friend of mine saw his entire office in the city evacuated, and as essential staff he was to be transferred to a secure bomb shelter. Another friend of mine, working at the House of Commons, had to continue working at a site which everyone knew was a prime target. For weeks afterwards we were all terrified that ‘planes might start dropping out of the skies.
None of these attacks had anything to do with complacency about security. They had everything to do with people trying to lead normal, free, everyday lives. In Britain, life carried on as normal during the period the IRA were campaigning, despite the occasional attack (and they were anything but occasional), because we didn’t want to give in to the bastards.
Yes, we could have locked up every Irishman in the country if we wanted to, and we could have happily shipped them off to an offshore processing facility, denied them a trial, and left them to rot while telling anyone who complained to piss off because we were at war. We could have stopped and searched every single boat coming across the Irish sea. It would have irritated and inconvenienced a lot of innocent people, but we could have done it. And instead the IRA would have hired mercenaries to plant their bombs, or entered the country by a different route.
In February 2002 I started work at the House of Commons. You may not realise this, but there’s a flight-path directly over the Houses of Parliament. It’s one of the major approaches to Heathrow which, being only a few miles away, means that the 'planes are pretty low. Every time I saw one approach Westminster from the south I realised how vulnerable we were.
The point of terrorism is to cause terror. Those responsible for 9/11 achieved this expertly, but the reason I continue to be terrified is not because I live in fear of a ‘plane smacking into me every day, or the knowledge that any unattended bag on the tube could contain a bomb or Sarin gas. The likelihood of me being the victim of a terrorist attack, despite living in one of the prime targets, and despite going through Westminster every day on my way to work, is minimal.
What terrifies me now is the reminder I get every time I see the security barriers outside the House of Commons, every time I see armed police on the streets of London and people not batting an eyelid, every time I hear someone willingly give up their hard-won civil rights because a tiny, insignificant minority of fanatics might, just possibly, do something. Terrorists will always find a way to spread fear – that is what they do. The way to deny them their power is to keep efforts at countering them as unobtrusive as possible.
As was pointed out in the reply to my earlier post, yes someone broke into Buckingham Palace this week, and yes, people managed to get into the Commons chamber. The Commons has the same high-profile, highly visible security measures as the US Embassy – concrete barriers, police with automatic weapons etc. etc. It didn’t do them any good. It wouldn’t do the US Embassy any good either.
In Britain we know terrorism, as they do in Spain. For Americans, with their limited experience of living with the constant threat of attack, to lecture Brits or Spaniards (as happened after the Madrid bombs) on the correct response is somewhat rich. In time, the US will learn to live with it too. It never gets any easier when the terrorists do strike, but it gets a lot easier not to be constantly thinking about the next time they might.
And, lest we forget, and as I pointed out earlier, there are several flight paths right over central London. As we all noticed three years back, ‘planes can cause a lot of damage in the wrong hands. What good is a bobby with a tommy-gun and a concrete barrier going to do against a 747? If you alter the flight-paths (which considering the air congestion over western Europe and London in particular is practically impossible) it would still take only a few minutes for a hijacked ‘plane to be re-routed to central London. Fighter aircraft may well be on constant patrol, but the order to destroy the ‘plane – filled with innocent civilians and flying over populated areas which would be hit by the falling debris – would not be taken lightly, and couldn’t be taken until it was obvious what was happening. By then, as became apparent back in September 2001, it is too late.
So, if the so-called security precautions are actually not going to do anything other than terrify the local population, thus doing the job of the terrorists for them, what useful purpose do they serve?
That was the point I was trying to make.