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.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

Fit of Olympique

"LONDON," the man said, and you could hear the screams of joy and surprise around the world, or at least across the Channel. Just that fast, London had won the right to host the 2012 Olympic Summer Games, the only city to have earned the honor three times. It had come down to London, Moscow, Madrid, New York, Singapore ... and Paris, city of lights, jewel of Europe, thought by many to have a lock on the Games. Cherchez le presidente.

There's no separating politics from these events; every announcement of an Olympic Games site is shot through with international intrigues, to say nothing of the Games themselves, as near a perfect distillation of military and political scenarios as you could ask for. The contenders were formidable but fell by the wayside for a variety of reasons (or speculations). Moscow? Too hot in the summer, infrastructure issues, the ever-smoldering mess with the Chechens. Madrid would have been a nice choice, and a worthy response to the March 11 train bombings. Who knows?

Singapore presented its own issues. Oh, the trains run on time like you wouldn't believe, but there may have been a suspicion that the potential for some global incident might well be made worse in one of the most stringent cities in the world. When spitting or chewing gum are imprisonable offenses, there's a high risk of the most innocent of actions making its way into the evening news -- the newscasts of every country on earth.

And then there's New York. Now and forever, the greatest and most indelible city on the planet. But also, at the end of the day, a city with huge infrastructure issues, the need for stadiums where they ain't, and the political and budgetary squabbling and infighting that's a reflection of how things get done in New York, however long it takes. There may have been some lingering sentiment to go with New York, as a gesture supporting the city's economic rebound since 9/11. But only some of that sentiment, and ultimately not enough to carry the day. (Let the fingerpointing begin.)

No, the sense was it really came down to London or Paris, and both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac had been hustling hard to close the sale. For the most part the battle had been above board -- a few cheap shots here and there, but the kind of thing you'd expect from two countries with six hundred years of bad blood between them.

But then Chirac stepped up to the plate at the eleventh hour and offered an ill-timed faux pas. With a comment meant to be a jibe at the legendarily mundane British way of cooking, Chirac likened British food to gustatory indelicacies coming from Finland. The president of France took a shot at British food by way of Helsinki, a jibe that would have been otherwise unremarkable, if not for the toweringly inconvenient fact that Finnish judges were part of the site-selection process just days away.

When the votes were tallied, London won and Paris lost, and it's anyone's guess as to how the Finnish judges decided to go. But if it was a legitimate tossup between the two cities before Chirac opened his mouth ... well, something tipped the scales to the Brits. What it was is pure conjecture. Jacques Chirac may have a lot of time in which to engage in conjecture if the howls for his head gain any momentum. Opposition to Chirac has been moutning for some time, largely on the issue of the faltering French economy and the erosion of France's health benefits for citizens. The rightists -- most notably Jean Marie le Pen, the arch and ardent nationalism and anti-immigrant firebrand -- are circling for a kill.

How it all pans out for London remains to be seen. It's a city with its own challenges of infrastructure and culture; who knows who'll be running the U.K. by then? But London will serve. It looks great on postcards and you don't need a foreign language to get around. What's not to like?
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