Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Trust and Terror

By Riley Roberts
From what little American news I've seen over the past couple of weeks, tidings of the recent failed London car bombs and the Glasgow Airport attack seem to have dominated the headlines. Throughout the UK, BBC affiliates, SKY News channels, and the infamous English tabloids have also pounced on the terror attacks, reverting to round-the-clock coverage and sensational headlines and screen crawls ("London Car Bomb Terror," read one newsstand; another headline screamed "Car Bomb Bid to Kill 1,700 Clubbers").

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.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at