7 July 2005
London: Not Exactly the Blitz
By Gwynne Dyer
Tony Blair flew down from the G8 summit in Scotland especially to
be with Londoners in their time of trial, and you can hardly blame him for
that. It’s not that we needed him to take charge — it was only four
smallish bombs, and the emergency services were doing their job just fine
— but the tabloid newspapers would have crucified him if he hadn’t shown
up and looked sympathetic in public.
No doubt he was feeling sympathetic, too, but the words he used
rang false. The accent was British, but the words were the sort of thing
that comes out of the mouth of George W. Bush — all about defending
British values and the British way of life. He didn’t mention God, so he’s
still British under it all, but I’m pretty sure I even heard him use Mr
Bush’s favourite words, “freedom” and “resolve”. I’m also pretty certain
that this cut very little ice with most Londoners.
This is a town that has been dealing with bombs for a long time.
German bombs during the “Blitz” in September-December 1940 killed 13,339
Londoners and seriously injured 17,939 more. In 1944 this city was the
first in the world to be hit by pilotless cruise missiles (the V-1s or
“buzz-bombs”), and later that year it was the first to be struck by
long-range ballistic missiles (the V-2s, which carried a tonne of high
During the whole of the Second World War, about 30,000 Londoners
were killed by German bombs and three-quarters of a million lost their
homes. Then, between 1971 and 2001, London was the target of 116 bombs set
by various factions of the Irish Republican Army, although they only killed
50 people and injured around 1000. And not once during all those bombs did
people in London think that they were being attacked because of their
values and their way of life.
It was quite clear to them that they were being attacked because of
British POLICIES abroad, or the policies of Britain’s friends and allies.
The people who organised the bombs wanted Britain out of the Second World
War, or British troops out of Northern Ireland, or the British army out of
the Middle East (or maybe, in this instance, the whole G8 to leave the rest
of the world alone). Nasty things, bombs, but those who send them your way
are usually rational people with rational goals, and they almost never care
about your values or your way of life.
Londoners actually understand that, and it has a remarkably calming
effect, because once you have grasped that basic fact then you are no
longer dealing with some faceless, formless, terrifying unknown, but just a
bunch of people who are willing to kill at random in order to get your
government to change its policies. We don’t even know which bunch yet. It
could have been Islamist terrorist, or some breakaway faction of the IRA
(that’s been waiting to happen for while), or even some anarchist group
trying to make a point about the G8. But that doesn’t matter, really.
The point is that they are only terrorists, and they can’t hurt all
that many people. In a large city the odds are very much in your favour:
it will almost always be somebody else who gets unlucky.
This knowledge breeds a fairly blase attitude to bombs, which was
much in evidence this morning when I had to go in to Harley Street at noon
to pick up my daughter from school. (They didn’t let school out early; it
was just the last day.) The buses and the underground weren’t running and
a lot of streets were blocked off by the police, but everybody was finding
ways round them, on foot and in cars. You pull over to let the emergency
vehicles pass, and then you carry on.
I do recall thinking, however, that it was a good thing that the
bombs had gone off here, not in some American city. Even terrorist bombs
in London will be used by the Bush administration as an argument for
locking people up indefinitely, taking away Americans’ civil liberties, and
perhaps even for invading some other unsuspecting country. One bomb in an
American city, and it would have a free run down to 2008.
Whereas in London, it doesn’t work like that. In fact, maybe it was
my imagination, but I thought that I could even hear a number of Londoners
muttering under their breaths: “Bloody terrorists. Always get it wrong. If
only they’d done this two days ago then we wouldn’t be lumbered with the
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.