Fri, Jul 29, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Fear creeps in

After the July 7 bombings, much was made of London's defiance. But now, the capital's mood seems less sure. Can things ever return to normal if nail bombs are planted in the local park?

By Tim Dowling  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA

I can pretty well pinpoint the moment when my own spirit of defiance started to fade. It was last Saturday morning. I was with the dog in the park opposite our house, chatting to a woman with a boxer while watching two uniformed policeman comb the undergrowth. It's not unusual to see police in our area; the place has of late become something of a center of excellence for delinquents. It is unusual, however, to be ordered to leave the area by a plainclothes officer citing the presence of a suspicious device. It is strange to watch the whole park being festooned in police tape, to see cops with machine-guns and earpieces standing on the corner. A huge security cordon was thrown up, with our house inside it.

At this point I was still feeling rather reassured by what I assumed was a ridiculous, if understandable, overreaction on the part of the police. People set fire to stolen scooters in our park, but they do not plants bombs there. We stood out on the front step in order to see what was happening, only to be told by a policeman that we must remain indoors. He was clearly looking for a phrase to describe the seriousness of the situation without telling us any more than he needed to.

The words he chose were: "It's got nails in."

That was when my defiance evaporated.

The spirit of the Blitz was invoked shortly after the bombings of Thursday, July 7, and it seemed to resonate immediately. Those directly affected by the attacks -- the injured, the emergency services, the families of those killed or hurt -- did indeed behave with courageous stoicism, and Londoners took a little reflected pride in their dignity. Mayor Ken Livingstone, a divisive figure at the best of times, made an emotional statement which perfectly captured the mood of the capital, even though he was in Singapore.

"Londoners will not be divided by the cowardly attack," he said, his voice angry and raw. "They will stand together in solidarity ... and that is why I'm proud to be the mayor of that city."

The next day people made their way to work, an act that was to become imbued with meaning. In different circumstances a business-as-usual approach to such a tragedy might have seemed callous, but those deeply affected by the bombings and those who were merely inconvenienced -- I count myself firmly among the latter; I was in Paris -- were united behind the idea that getting on with life sent the terrorists the right message. The buses filled up again. The following Monday, Livingstone took the tube to work as normal, elevating the grind of the daily commute into a provocative political statement.

At the same time, the Web site www.werenotafraid.com became a clearinghouse for various expressions of defiance, an almost direct response to the terrorists' online claim of responsibility, which asserted that "Britain is now burning with fear." Some of the postings on werenotafraid.com were moving, some were mawkish, a few strayed into reckless bravado, but the overall tone was one of simple solidarity, amplified by the huge number of respondents.

And in London things certainly seemed to be getting back to normal. Tourist numbers began to recover. Some 20,000 people turned up to the National Gallery's Stubbs exhibition on July 20.

Despite stern warnings from the security services about the possibility of more attacks, it seemed like it would be a good long while before terrorists dared to test our vigilance again.

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