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HOW HE SEES IT In Britain, a stiff, if weary, upper lip



Published: Tue, July 12, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By EDWARD LUCAS

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

LONDON -- "Something's happened in the city," explained the driver of my bus as he pulled up a short way from London's Harrods department store at 9:36 Thursday morning. As he waited for further instructions, a passenger listening to a radio in her cell phone declared that "there are explosions on the Tube; they're blaming them on a power surge." "More likely bombs," said another passenger quietly. The bus fell silent, and we disembarked and drifted off, some to return home, others to make their way to work on foot.

The explosions were indeed bombs, but initially they seemed only marginally more alarming than normal life. The sight of a train station closed because of a suspect package, or of a street cordoned off around a suspicious car, barely arouses interest, let alone fear, in Britain. Even as news of decapitated bodies and pictures of blood-soaked victims began filling the airwaves, shock and sorrow were mixed with determination to keep the proverbial stiff upper lip. The atmosphere in the pub next to the Economist's downtown offices Thursday evening was resolutely relaxed and cheerful. "The solution's obvious: Round up the Frenchies," said one drinker, alluding to French disappointment over London's selection to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

That's not just the nation's famously phlegmatic, ironic approach to life. It is the effect of 30 years of terrorism. Attacks (occasionally) and scares about attacks (often) have become the tiresome but familiar backdrop to daily life in big British cities.

Thirty years ago, when the Irish Republican Army began its bombing campaign on mainland Britain, the reaction was different, more fierce and panicky. Many innocent Irish people felt scared that their accent would provoke hostility, verbal or physical. The criminal justice system entered the darkest period in its modern history, and British courts convicted 18 innocent people on forged or flimsy evidence, or thanks to forced confessions. (All have since been cleared.)

Foiled plots

The reaction to Thursday's attacks could have been different, too, had they constituted the "new" terrorism British officials have been dreading and have frequently warned the country to expect. Over the past three years, authorities here have foiled plots involving ricin, a lethal poison, and a surface-to-air missile thought to be in the hands of a terrorist group targeting Heathrow Airport. Security services have feared new technology, new methods and casualties on the scale of Sept. 11. Should Thursday's bombs prove to have been carried by suicide bombers -- which seems unlikely at the moment -- then there is indeed a new dimension. Suicide bombing was not a tactic used by the IRA, and it is one that is particularly hard to block.

At the moment, though, Thursday's explosions seem more like a dreary rerun of a miserable movie that Britain has seen too often already. The attacks were better coordinated than a typical IRA bombing. The bombs were smaller and more numerous, and there was no warning (which the IRA usually gave). But the result was not beyond what the authorities had planned for. Emergency services were not overwhelmed. Rescue plans functioned as they should. For most Londoners, a working day was disrupted, but no more.

So what will happen? It is easier to say what won't happen. Fortunately, there is no sign -- so far at least -- of hostility toward Britain's 1.6 million Muslims, whose leaders have been quick and forthright in their condemnation of the attacks. There will be no foreign policy swings. The government, and most Britons, are determined to show that life continues: After all, if it changes sharply, the terrorists are winning.

If anything, the attacks will serve to highlight Tony Blair's resolve and determination, rather than his mistakes. The public may continue to disapprove of the war in Iraq, but both major British political parties continue to support it, and neither will want to appear to be influenced by mass murder.

For most Brits, terrorism on Thursday's scale is not a menace to their daily lives. It is too infrequent and too remote. It is a question of bigger insurance premiums, of worse inconvenience, of higher costs, of greater suspicion and more delay. But life goes on.

X Edward Lucas, a writer for the Economist, covered Thursday's attacks in London.




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