I witnessed the events of September 11 from my office window in Manhattan. I experienced the events of July 7 from the northern edge of London, where I was attending a company off-site. Much of my reaction last week, and the reactions of people around me, were similar to those nearly four years ago. There were anxious phone calls and e-mails to spouses and children. As with September 11, the overloaded mobile phone networks heightened the anxiety of those who couldn’t get through. There was, again, the stream of rumors and false reports—more bombs found, more bombers sighted. There were road closures and a shutdown of mass transit. There were security checkpoints. There was a scramble to figure out how to get home that evening, or, if that wasn’t possible, where to spend the night.
But many things about the two days were different. To begin with, there was some sort of temporal context for the London bombings. September 11 was just another day; July 7 was the day British Prime Minister Tony Blair was to lead the G8 summit at Gleneagles. There was also the jarring contrast of jubilation just the day before, when London won the right to host the 2012 Olympics. (“Must have been the French,” I heard someone mumble upon first hearing the news of the bombings.) September 11 was a day of awe and panic in Manhattan, and the catastrophe was on a massive scale. The events in London were of a smaller dimension—bloody, but more comprehensible.
On September 11, all business stopped, the day’s agenda abandoned. In London, however, the reaction was businesslike and measured. At our conference, we gave people the freedom to make calls and modified our afternoon plans. But the conference continued; work went on. On September 11, there was much discussion about the symbolic nature of the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. Canary Wharf, where my company has offices, is now as representative of business as any edifice in London. But the London bombings, like the Madrid bombings last year, were not aimed at a symbol of capitalism, or any other symbol for that matter—not Parliament or 10 Downing Street or the London Eye. They were aimed, in fact, at the opposite of anything symbolic. The targets had nothing of the Twin Towers’ irresistibility. The attacks were aimed at commuters during the morning rush hour. In the United States, we know how vulnerable our trains and buses and ports are. But we expect, and imagine, attacks on places of symbolic importance: the U.S. Capitol, the Golden Gate Bridge, Disney World. In London, there seems to be no similar expectation. The rumors that circulated were about bombs on other buses, at other stations.
London is perhaps the most international of cities, hospitable for years to a large Muslim population, including Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The question in Western society is how much the belief in civil liberty will impede the ability to protect civil society. The British have achieved a relatively good and improving balance between the protection of individual freedoms and the police powers appropriate to identify and frustrate terrorists. It is a success based on a long history and a tolerant view of its Muslim population. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent was published in London a century ago; years of experience with the Irish Republican Army has made the combating of terrorism the topic of discourse, not constitutional heresy. The same is true elsewhere in Europe, where experience with the Basque separatists, the Red Brigade, Palestinian terrorists, and other such groups is long.
In the United States, we cannot seem to strike the right balance. Within our boundaries, we are fiercely protective of civil liberties; outside of them, as Abu Ghraib and Guantnamo attest, police power seems unchecked. In law school, I read the Supreme Court’s Korematsu decision on the detention of Japanese Americans and took away from it what most law students do: a revulsion at cultural stereotyping. There was little discussion about national security needs trumping civil liberties. And yet, now I understand the decision in a way I did not then. There is also a significant difference between a war declared against a nation and a war declared against shadows.
We have become increasingly adept at thinking about acts of terrorism as abstractions. We view them through the cold calculus of stock markets. We know that investors who react with panic are outwitted and overwhelmed by those who react with cool calculation. We are becoming skilled at estimating the financial damage from terrorism just as we have also learned to take the measure of natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. The markets are but one aspect of our social psyche, but they indicate that we are getting used to taking the dimensions of terrorism. We are not only thinking through the ramifications of the unthinkable, we are modeling them and betting our pensions on the results.
Of course, there is nothing abstract about terrorist acts for their victims, those injured and those family members and friends left grieving. For the rest of us, eyewitnesses and observers, there is, if not abstraction, an increasing sense of routine. I was a frequent passenger on PanAm 103 before the Lockerbie disaster; I was trapped overnight in Manhattan in the power outage two Augusts ago; I have been in two cities under terrorist attack. At my company, as at many large companies now, contingency plans for terrorist incidents and other crises are an integral aspect of corporate life. If terrorism strikes, I now know what I must do, whom I must call or reach by e-mail, where to meet up with others, what travel and lodging and eating plans are realistic. My children accept all this as a fact of their childhood; at home, we openly discuss the emergency instruction manuals their school sends home in their backpacks. Most days, I pass through the magnificent interior of Grand Central Station twice; occasionally, I glance at the policemen and National Guardsmen stationed there and think, Will this be the day? We are getting better at ferreting out and inhibiting terrorism. In the United States, as in London, we are also getting better at learning to live with it.
This article originally ran in the July 25, 2005 issue of the magazine.