When people become upset, their lips often tremble, channeling fear and emotion to a small but obvious part of the body. Resisting the urge to tremble is a sign of restraint and determination.
That is why it has become a sign of the British character. A "stiff upper lip" -- a phrase that became popular sometime in the 1800s because most men wore moustaches, making the upper lip most noticeable -- is to be maintained in the face of adversity, a reflection of the stoicism bred into Britons over centuries of dreary weather and proud history.
That resolve was on ample display on Thursday, as Londoners coped with the shock and bloody aftermath of a series of terrorist attacks that halted the city's massive transportation system and killed and injured hundreds of innocent people riding the bus and tube on an ordinary weekday.
"I truly thought I was going to die and was just hoping it would be from smoke inhalation and not fire," Jo Herbert, who was caught at King's Cross station, wrote to the Guardian newspaper's Web site. "I felt genuine fear but kept calm (and quite proud of myself for that)."
Pride in being calm was woven through Prime Minister Tony Blair's comments and actions on Thursday. "Mr. Blair said that the British people would show by their 'quiet but true strength' that their values would long outlast those of the terrorists," the BBC reported.
Such resolute statements are routinely offered by leaders every time one of these awful attacks occurs -- in the United States, Spain and now Britain. As pat as it sounds, outlasting terror is not only an obvious strategy. It's also one that works.
The British have known terror before, most recently at the hands of the Irish Republican Army, whose campaign of violence included killing the queen's first cousin and many other government officials, nearly assassinating Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, and numerous other instances of death and destruction. None of this broke the British resolve to outlast terror.
Unlike the terrorists in London, the IRA had a well-known goal -- British troops out of Northern Ireland -- and, in general, a policy of targeting those affiliated with the British government. There was at least a rationale to their actions, even if their methods were abhorrent and unacceptable.
Now even the IRA, with its mission and its mystique, has been dramatically weakened to the point that its political frontman, Gerry Adams of the Sinn Fein party, recently called on the group to renounce armed struggle and pursue its goals through peaceful means. It has lost financial and political support from sympathizers in the United States -- even U.S. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican who was one of the IRA's staunchest defenders on this side of the Atlantic, recently called on the group to disband. So did a resolution introduced into the U.S. Senate by Ted Kennedy.
Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland, once a de facto ally of the drive to end British authority in the six counties in the north, has become instead a proponent of peaceful negotiation and, not coincidentally, an economic powerhouse of its own.
The future isn't all rosy on the Emerald Isle. The IRA still resorts to deadly force; political moderates have lost ground in recent elections, and the Good Friday Accords, which promise true self-governance for Northern Ireland, are not implemented. But compared with 20 years ago, when I covered Ireland as a foreign correspondent based in London, the IRA has been hobbled, perhaps permanently, by a concerted effort to drive it into irrelevancy.
Simply put, its terrorism hasn't worked.
Outlasting terror cannot be a strategy followed blindly and stupidly; the last thing terrorists need is additional reasons to pursue violence and fresh recruits for their cause. But Blair, President Bush and others are correct when they remind us that this strategy requires patience, fortitude, and the very impulse toward unity that terror-induced chaos is designed to thwart.
"These terrorists, these evil people want to demoralize us as a nation and divide us," said Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain. "All of us must unite in helping the police to hunt these murderers down."
With a stiff upper lip.
X Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.