Monday, July 11, 2005

'This ... is London'

What a difference a few days makes. Flush with pride as the host nation for the G8 summit, flush with a victory as the site for the 2012 Summer Olympic games, London awoke to horror on the morning of July 7. That day, three suicide bombers exploded themselves in subway trains in the London Underground, killing at least 52 people and injuring many more. The authorities are very much on the case and expect to soon have the identities of those involved, in no small part because of the relentless, almost Orwellian surveillance that is a fundamental part of living in London.

At first the authorities were adamnt that this not be characterized as a suicide bombing -- the very phrase conjures up scenarios of Baghdad and the West Bank, not Hyde Park and Piccadilly, and it's safe to say the British people would have preferred to maintain the distinction. But the stereotypically stiff British upper lip is suddenly forced to come to grips with fundamentalist-style terrorism in a way it hasn't had to deal with since the harrowing heyday of the IRA, assuming, as we must, that we haven't seen the last of such attacks.

In one day, with one event, the stakes are suddenly different. In a trice the notion of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism as an "over there" phenomenon has been soundly kicked to the kerb. In a moment the Muslims that walked the streets and worked the shops of London in relative peace and quiet became the Enemy. What happens now, what happens next will be a true test of British character. How will the authorities react? They're obligated to go into crackdown mode; how discerning will they be?

And hell, never mind the police -- how will the citizens react? Will the proper Anglo-Saxon burghers grab pitchforks and build tumbrels to roll down Piccadilly, screaming "Bring back Enoch Powell!"

As I said, a true test of British character. Many a Londoner walks the streets today remembering Britain's last big test, when a foreign power buzzbombed the city with more silent airborne ordnance in a day then terrorists have in the last ten years, With today's potential of the enemy within, rather than the World War II-era certainty of the enemy from outside, the storied British resolve -- the stiff upper lip from Ealing Studios' central casting department -- faces its greatest challenge since Hitler ran roughshod over Europe.

"This ... is London," Edward R. Murrow said back then from a perch somewhere in the beleagured city. And Britain rose to the occasion and steeled itself against the invader, and stood on its principles rather than its fears, and became an example to the world.

One longs for that Britain again. You hope that, short of ruling the waves, Britannia will at least rule its emotions.

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