The Magazine

Letter from Londonistan

From the August 1, 2005 issue: In the war on terror, Britain still thinks it's 1999.

Aug 1, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 43 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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London

MYTHS ARE NOT THE STUFF of which sensible policy is made. So it is important to scotch the myth that Britain and America have similar and equally effective responses to the terrorist attacks they have suffered. The hard fact is that America has decided that it is engaged in a war, while Britain has decided that it is confronted with what the leader of the Tory party (historically the foreign policy tough guys) calls a "criminal conspiracy" and the Economist calls a "'war on terror,'" complete with quotation marks. Put differently, 7/7 has evoked a policy response very different from 9/11.

It is, of course, true that the citizens of New York and London reacted similarly to the attacks on them: with remarkable courage and heightened civic solidarity. But similar reactions by individuals caught up in the terrorist storm do not necessarily make for similar reactions by governments. President Bush responded to the destruction of New York's World Trade Center by proclaiming through a bullhorn, "The people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us." And they did--the Taliban no longer control Afghanistan. Tony Blair, a stalwart when confronted with the idea of taking the attack on terror to wherever terrorism flourished, responded to the bombing on London's tube with eloquent appearances before the television cameras and the House of Commons, by convening meetings with leaders (although exactly who they lead remains uncertain) of the Muslim community to enlist their aid, and with his ministers to begin preparation for legislation that will be introduced, but not until some time in October, after the long, leisurely summer parliamentary recess. Bush critics wish that the president possessed Blair's eloquence; Blair critics wish that the prime minister possessed Bush's willingness to act.

One reason for the widely different responses is that America was attacked by foreigners, whereas Brits were horrified to learn that they had been attacked by fellow citizens. Americans know it is "us" against "them," whereas Brits know that "they" are also "us." Pete Hamill, that astute observer of New Yorkers, had it right when he wrote in his wonderful Downtown: My Manhattan, "Where I come from, the rules were relatively simple. . . . Don't look for trouble, because in New York you can always find it. But don't back off either."

As Robert Conquest once observed, "Our cultures, our histories, grasp us with a thousand invisible fingers." British history and culture are different, and hence have produced a different reaction to terror. British history is replete with instances of the defiance and eventual defeat of those who would destroy the country, and with examples of the famous stiff upper lip that makes American-style shouting extraordinarily difficult. But more recent history has tended to equate defiance with a shrug and an ability to show that "we can take it," rather than with an accompanying willingness to destroy the enemy on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields--well, you know.

British culture now dictates a confused response to terrorists. Start with the unwillingness of the majority of the British people to recognize that they are indeed in a war. The flak-jacketed, heavily armed men and women lining my road to Heathrow last week were cops, not troops. America is at war, Britain is playing cops and criminals. These are very different things, with important implications for policy. Just as the Clinton administration decided to respond to terror attacks as if they were bank heists--he sent the FBI overseas--Britain has insisted on applying the law and procedures of the criminal justice system to terrorists. The entire panoply of legal procedures that prevent detention, deportation, and arrest of Muslim clerics calling for the blood of Britain's infidels is available to the as-many-as 3,000 terrorists whom the authorities estimate live in Britain, many trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, or with actual battle experience in Iraq. Whatever rights U.K. law doesn't confer are available to the fledgling jihadists as a result of Blair's decision to sign on to Europe's Human Rights Act. Britain makes available to terrorists and preachers of mayhem, often at government expense, an entire industry of human rights lawyers and support groups. These resources will remain available to those who challenge the new powers the government will seek to curb the preaching of violence. The government also provides substantial housing and health care benefits to many men who reciprocate by trying to destroy it.