It is very difficult to find a trash bin in downtown London. This is one of the Irish Republican Army‘s legacies: Its bombing campaigns in the British capital led the city to take precautions against terrorism — like removing bomb-concealing wastebaskets — years before September 11 alerted Americans to the threat of attack at home. Free of American-style concerns about privacy and civil liberties, London is also blanketed with surveillance cameras.
Today’s attacks worked around those precautions. Some will read that as an argument for stricter measures, some as a demonstration that whatever barriers are erected, terrorists will find a way.
Americans who haven’t visited London will find it hard to grasp the chaos that these attacks must have triggered. The Underground system is much more crowded than most of New York’s subway cars, except perhaps the jam-packed Lexington Avenue line. Even on a normal day, getting in and out of Tube stations can be a struggle. The buses are similarly swamped: At rush hour, riders sometimes have to stand on the stairs connecting the lower and upper decks.
Severe disruptions aren’t that rare on the Tube, although previously they’ve been due to labor strife. Britain’s unions are much more aggressive than their U.S. counterparts, reflected in the statement by the head of the transit workers union, Bob Crow, reacting to the attacks. He wasted no time in critiquing security on the Underground. “These terrible attacks show just how vulnerable commuters and Tube workers are,” Crow said. “Tube workers and the emergency services have responded magnificently and there is now a clear need to review security after such an attack.”
While this is the first attack in Britain since September 11, Britain’s Home Office has recorded a batch of recent incidents overseas in which Brits were targets:
There have been a number of attacks specifically targeting U.K. interests based overseas. Al Qaida’s car bomb attack on the British Consulate and HSBC in Istanbul in November 2003 killed five people. Al Qaeda also claimed responsibility for the shooting of a British national in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in September 2004 and Kenneth Bigley was murdered in October 2004 in Iraq by a group that has been linked to Al Qaida. Most recently, a British national was killed by a suicide bomb outside the Doha Players’ Theatre in the capital of the Gulf state of Qatar in March 2005.
Besides London commuters, another victim of the deadly blasts might be the progressive agenda Prime Minister Tony Blair hoped to advance at this week’s G8 summit in Scotland. The topics of increased aid to Africa and global warming might again take a back seat to terrorism.
Three days after September 11, London observed a moment of silence for the victims in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. The normally buzzing city literally stopped. People left their offices and taxis pulled over. Britons sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Over the next few days, as the scope of the London attacks becomes clear, it will be interesting to see if Americans reciprocate.