When I lived in London in the early ’90’s it seemed like something was blowing up all the time. The bombing of the day would make the news, but it was usually connected with a report about the traffic, like “commuter delays expected this morning inbound to Victoria station due to a bombing near Cramfingerling on Stoke, injuries reported. Sunny intervals this morning interrupted by rain falling sideways with periods of impenetrable gloom. In sport, Arsenal held off Chelsea…”
The sanguine British response to this seemingly constant stream of attacks was baffling at first. It seemed unlikely to me that America would face such a barrage with the same quiet grace. If some foreign terrorist blew up the Orange Julius at the Galleria, I expected that our reaction would start at tilt and quickly elevate. In our rage we might invade Mexico and wrap up our unfinished business from the 1840’s. In time I would gain some appreciation of what lay beneath British attitudes.
The pub where I worked at night (it took three part-time jobs to keep me starving slowly) was in the East End among the old docks. Construction there consistently turned up unexploded bombs from The Blitz when the area had been nearly leveled. One slow evening the pub owner got out a stack of old pictures of the place, including a black and white showing a German bomb that had lodged in the bar.
The old-timers began telling their stories. Several had lived in the neighborhood and were kids during the war. For four years they slept each night in crude, home-made shelters made of corrugated tin dug into their back gardens. Each morning they clambered out, brimming with excitement. Before school they would ride their bikes around the debris-strewn streets to watch the firefighters, see whose homes had been hit, and find out who had been killed.
An older guy, a prolific drunk who parked himself silently at the end of the bar from 5pm – closing each night, perked up to share. He joined the army in the summer of ’38, gaming that he might finish an 18-month tour of duty before any war would break out and be safe thereafter. He was fighting in France when the Allies were routed in 1940. He grabbed a friend and they fled on a stolen horse toward Dunkirk. He rode as fast as he could, weaving to avoid fire from the German planes that strafed them along the way.
Arriving on the beach he turned to congratulate his friend who had been holding on behind. The man’s body tumbled to the ground riddled with bullets. He had been dead for hours. My drunk friend explained that he then escaped from Dunkirk on a small recreational sailboat navigated by a British civilian from a coastal town. He went on to fight in North Africa, Italy, France, and finally Germany.
The British bring a sense of perspective to these troubles that tends to steady the nerves.
I think we have responded fairly well to the 9/11 attacks. They were unquestionably the most lethal and dramatic terrorist incidents anyone has ever faced. They unfolded on TV in front of my wife and I and our young son, leaving us all to stare in helpless fury at the carnage. Sure, in the wake of it we invaded two countries, but one of them was actually connected to the attack and the other one pretty much had it coming.
For a while we were all a little nuts. It’s tough to absorb such a blow while at the same time recognizing the absurd pointlessness of it. The attacks on 9/11 had little more political significance than a tornado strike or a flood. That’s hard to cope with. In the wake of something like that you want a war to fight, an enemy to destroy, a campaign. All that mammoth damage and loss of life just so a small gang of religious-themed psycho-killers can film a recruiting tape? It’s insult added to injury.
Our raw suffering from the incident was manipulated by our leadership for a while. The threat advisory level was toggled up and down 17 times from 2002-2006, with key elections coinciding with elevated risks. Funny old world.
When the wheels finally started coming off the last Administration they mostly abandoned that tool. The advisory level hasn’t been touched since it was raised for the 2006 mid-terms.
I was at O’Hare just this week, but I can’t remember for sure whether they are still playing that silly recording over the PA system about the “threat level.” Perhaps that’s a sign that we are starting to get used to this. That may not be a bad thing, since this is something we will have to get used to.
For those keeping score in the bleachers the current threat level is “Orange,” indicating a high risk of terrorist attack. This level applies only to flights. The country at large is operating at a mere Yellow, so plan your day accordingly.
The British can teach us a lot about what it takes to sit on top of the world, and what it costs. They were there for two centuries, about as long as we have existed as a nation. Patient endurance is sometimes, though certainly not always, a virtue. As a people with many spectacular virtues, that’s one we have room to work on.
The threat advisory level is Orange. Get your work done. Have a drink. Go on with your life.
Filed under: Uncategorized |