Monday, July 11, 2005

77 is not 911


I have noticed that some people have started referring to last week’s bombings in London as 77. Attempts to make parallels between what happened in New York four years ago and London last week were inevitable.

Inevitable but totally wrong.

It’s taken a few days for the story to stabilise though. The first 24 hours were quite confusing. Was London thrown into chaos and panic or did the plucky Londoners show a stiff upper lip? Did the bombers stop the City in its tracks or did it carry on regardless? The media hadn’t decided, or been told, how to shape the story so the reporting was all over the place.

Anyway, the story has settled down and the journalists and commentators are working hard at creating a 77 legend; the plucky Blitz spirit, the calm efficiency of the city’s emergency services, the story of a city that just won’t die.

But the "77 is 911" story doesn’t seem to be taking hold.

There are lots of reasons for that.

Firstly, there’s the issue of sheer numbers. Whatever the final death toll is in London it will be an order of magnitude less than the number of those lost in New York. Fewer people have been directly touched by the deaths.

Nor has the impact of the attack been so physically visible in our lives. Most of the horror took place underground. Our skyline hasn’t changed. Our rail service was disrupted but Londoners are sadly accustomed to buggered-up infrastructure and the occasional multiple-fatality train disaster.

The attack on New York also had a certain cinematic quality to it that the London attacks lacked. 911 was large-scale and in your face. In comparison, the London bombings were relatively small scale, cramped and grubby. They didn’t make for very dramatic television. There’s less imagery incised in our minds.

The legacy of the IRA bombings over the last thirty years is also a factor. Though we’ve been mercifully spared bombings in recent years, many people still remember those times and London has never fully relaxed since that campaign was stopped or, shall we say, suspended. Terrorism has been part of London life for a long time. The Twin Towers attack came out of the blue and was a genuine surprise to people who had never really faced up to the reality of terrorism. I recall some Londoners murmuring bitterly at the time that maybe those New Yorkers who were funding the IRA through NORAID might think twice about contributing funds to buy Semtex and M16s to be used on the streets of Britain’s cities.

And, funnily enough, they did.

A LOT of new people have moved into London since the days of the IRA so they were probably caught unawares. Speaking personally, for myself and people I know, we never did fully forget the risk of terrorism. On several occasion in recent years I, or the other 1/2, have left train carriages that contained what might have been unattended packages. This may sound harsh but it really didn’t seem worth questioning strangers to find out who, if anybody, would claim them. Not worth it, right up until last Thursday. Expect to see an awful lot of trains, buses, theatres, cinemas and whathaveyou being evacuated over the next few months. Before everyone gets complacent all over again.

There are other, more interesting, reasons why London and Britain won’t react to the bombings the same way as New York and America but before I get onto those I need to jot down a few thoughts about what I did over the weekend …


Darren said...

I had a suspect package incident on a train this January.
There was a bag right under my seat, too far forward to belong to the person behind (or so I thought).

Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask the lady behind and of course, it was her bag.
I think I freaked her out, I know I freaked myself out.

I worked at London Bridge station during the IRA campaign, this is not the first time I've had to do that - but I still hate doing it.

Stef said...

Darren - you're a more conscientious man than me and good on you. As I said, I never questioned people about bags and just got off the train or changed carriages if I wasn't happy. I've done this on several occasions in recent years.

The bottom line is how can you be sure that every bag on a train is spoken for particularly on our packed trains? I can't see that ever happening.