Terror in London

The day after terror attacks on London, I try to add some perspective

Dateline 08 July 2005

It is heartening that friends from all over the world, especially the United States, and including the Editor of Lake Champlain Weekly, have been in touch to enquire about my safety, and my wife’s. I should stress immediately that we are both fine, and to the best of my belief, so is everyone we know.

We live about 25 miles south west of London. We frequently visit London, indeed my wife travels through its center on the way to and from work. Our train journey into central London is through Wimbledon, so we have recently experienced the famous Wimbledon-effect on our weather. Until she moved to this country, my wife refused to believe my oft-repeated assertion that tennis causes rain.

But it is not tennis-related downpours but al Qaeda related terrorism that has lately been causing our friends and relatives to worry.

On Thursday July 07 we were in south London at the Home Office (Interior Department) sorting out my wife’s visa. Cell phones have to be turned off while sitting in their waiting area and the only TV screen repeated a loop of “government information films” with helpful advice such as “don’t leave your baby unattended in the bath” and “falling downstairs can be painful”.

It is against this background that we emerged to discover that the railway station we were heading to had been closed because of an “unattended package”. The policeman did make a reference to “the incidents this morning” which confused us. At this point, closing railway stations because someone had put down a bag for a moment or two seemed a ludicrous, but pretty typical, reaction. When the IRA bombed Victoria station in 1991 they killed one person. The decision to close all of London’s railway stations transferred extra traffic to the roads and must have killed several more.

We were naturally horrified to discover that on this occasion al Qaeda had killed over 30. In subsequent days the figure passed 50. This is far ahead of the Birmingham pub bombings, when the IRA killed 19 with nail bombs planted in bars in England’s second city.

But we still need perspective. In thirty years of terror, the IRA murdered over 3,000 people. Yet Gerry Adams, one of the IRA’s chief strategists, has shaken Bill Clinton’s hand on the White House lawn.

About 3,000 people die on Britain’s roads every year. More people have died on the roads in Britain over the last week than have murdered by terrorists. On 9/11 al Qaeda managed in a matter of hours to kill as many people as the IRA has slaughtered in 30 years. It amounts to not even a tenth of the number annual of traffic fatalities in the US.

And so we continue. The Tube (subway) was closed for a day. Some of the mainline railway stations were also closed. My wife and I had our one hour journey home extended to three hours.

But I believe that even these small scale reactions were over the top. London is far more dependent on mass transit than any other comparable city. There are more than 300 Tube stations, and hundreds of overground railway stations as well. The additional road traffic caused by such panic measures is much more dangerous than terrorism. Also, around 86% of people who work in central London travel by some form of mass transport, so closing the railways and the buses brings the city to a standstill. And that is the sort of victory we should not be prepared to concede.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 08 July 2005

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