The Magazine

Letter from London

Unfazed or underwhelmed?

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By JEFFREY GEDMIN
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London

I THOUGHT LEAVING ISRAEL for London would make me safer. I came via Zurich, and the mood in the airport before takeoff was both calm and creepy. I noticed on the monitors that the entire day's flights to Heathrow were suddenly posted as either canceled or delayed. In the Swiss Air lounge, passengers gathered around television sets as reports came in that British authorities had thwarted a plot by terrorists to blow up multiple aircraft in midair.

I felt I had been here before. On the morning of 9/11, I was on a United Airlines flight out of Washington's Dulles airport. We had been in the air maybe 30 minutes, bound for the west coast, when the pilot announced that the president had de clared a state of national emergency. Our flight was first diverted to Pittsburgh and then suddenly, without explanation, to Indianapolis. I would only learn later about United Airlines Flight 93, apparently just ahead of us, which had crashed in an open field near Shanksville, Pa.

I made it to London. I was booked to fly into London City airport, and, while Heathrow passengers were left stranded back in Zurich, my flight arrived with a mere 30-minute delay. Extra police were patrolling everywhere when we landed. They wore large black bulletproof vests, and each officer I saw held his finger on the trigger of a machine gun. It all looked rather ominous. In front of the airport, cars letting off and picking up passengers drew constant attention, as police officers would approach each vehicle, peer inside, and signal for drivers to keep moving. Overzealous cops? Was this a gesture to reassure the public, or did the police know something we did not know? I had no complaints.

John Reid, Britain's home secretary, had just given a speech that critics had berated as strident and excessive. "They just don't get it," Reid had said, a blast directed at the British media and legal establishment. Reid insisted the British people "probably faced the most sustained period of severe threat since the end of the Second World War." It's un clear exactly what Reid knew when he spoke, hours before the raids, but news of the dramatic plot has made Reid's speech look a bit more compelling. Tony Blair has gotten a desperately needed boost for his tireless calls to take the terrorist threat seriously. Will it last?

It's hard to see how the debate here will sort itself out. The events of the last days have reignited British agonizing over how the country integrates its Muslim population. In London, some neighborhoods are as much as 35 percent Muslim. And so far it looks like many of those arrested in the plot, like the terrorists who struck last summer, are citizens and apparently middle class. The "poverty-causes-terror" school may be about to be further discredited.

Michael Gove, a former assistant editor of the Times and now a rising star in Tory politics, worries things may not change substantially for the better. In Britain there has been a crucial debate, says Gove, between those who think Blair has exaggerated the threat--and believe that Islamic terror has mostly to do with misguided Western policies (Iraq) and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--and those who believe that Islamism is ideological and global. The Bush-Blair side of this argument has not fared very well.

The failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the considerable violence in Iraq since Saddam's deposing effectively decimated the prime minister's standing. The Iraq war was never popular with the British. Missteps at home by the British authorities in the war on terror have not helped either. There was the tragic killing last summer of a Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, who police mistakenly had suspected of being a terrorist. This came on the heels of the July 7 subway and bus bombings that took 52 lives. More recently, there was "Forest Gate"--the scandal named after the residential area in the London neighborhood of Newham, which has a Muslim population of some 25 percent. Two months ago, in an operation involving some 250 police officers, authorities arrested in their Forest Gate home Mohammed Abdul Kahar and his brother. Police shot Abdul Kahar in the shoulder. Authorities had expected to find chemical weapons in their possession. They found nothing, and the two brothers were later released. Scotland Yard issued an apology. Blair stood by the police, though, "101 percent," as he said, adding at the time: "You can only imagine, if they failed to take action and something terrible happened what the outcry would be then."