Trust and Terror
At first, I was a bit surprised at the way in which most news agencies reacted; after all, the British endured Hitler's nightly blitz for years during the Second World War and scarcely batted an eye. Even more recently, bomb attacks by the Irish Republican Army have rocked some London neighborhoods but barely ruffled the feathers of this "stiff upper lip" population. Why would such alarmism accompany these comparatively minor events?
Once one switches off the BBC and puts down the newspapers, however, one sees in the eyes of the people on the Underground that things really have not changed much. While the government takes swift investigative action and the media tries to get the scoop night and day, the majority of Britons continue about their business relatively unfazed. Some friends and I saw a play on the same night that the car bombs were found, and we walked through Trafalgar Square and down The Haymarket only two hours before the area was cordoned off by police because the vehicles had been discovered.
When we awoke in the morning, apart from the headlines and the police barricades, we found the city very much unchanged - the Underground was as crowded as it had been on the previous day, in spite of the elevated threat and the fact that, over the years, the Tube has been a popular target for terrorists. The streets remained crowded with "holidaymakers" and businesspeople - and, had we not checked the headlines before we left our dormitory on that particular morning, my fellow students and I might have gone through the day oblivious to the attempted attacks.
In addition to the media's reaction and the fortitude exhibited by the British, England's history with terrorism has shaped its government in a number of significant ways. Thanks to extensive closed-circuit television surveillance of the city, London is now the most photographed city in the world (I've heard, though I have found little documented proof, that one is on camera more often that not while in London). Though the cameras drew a certain amount of criticism from privacy advocates when they began to go up, little has been done to limit their use or remove them. As in America, Patriot Act-style policies have also been enacted by the government in order to combat terror - but unlike in the States, many of these measures have been on the books for decades because of IRA attacks. Some police functions of the state have long been at the fore - in various forms at various times - although controversy surrounding privacy rights and questions about personal freedom have long accompanied them.
Such a long history of terrorism informs the ways in which Great Britain reacts to threats and also represents a set of collective experiences vastly different than those of the United States. While these differences are difficult or impossible to quantify, and while the effect that they have (if any) on actual policymaking is tough to measure, comparison between Britain and the U.S. remains essential to understanding both countries as they relate to one another.