Fear in the city

I can pretty well pinpoint the moment when my own spirit of defiance started to fade. It was on 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; 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 park being festooned in police tape, to see cops with machine-guns 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, over-reaction on the part of the police. We stood on the front step to see what was happening, only to be told by a policeman to remain indoors. “It’s got nails in,’’ he said. That was when my defiance evaporated.

The spirit of the Blitz was invoked shortly after the bombings of July 7, and it seemed to resonate immediately. Those directly affected by the attacks 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 that perfectly captured the mood of the capital. “Londoners will not be divided by the cowardly attack,’’ he said. “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 were united behind the idea that getting on with life sent the terrorists the right message. The buses filled up again. On Monday Livingstone took the tube to work as normal, elevating the grim grind of the daily commute into a provocative political statement.

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.

The second attack changed all that. The half-certainties we had let ourselves adopt were shattered. We had hoped that Britain contained a fairly limited supply of home-grown suicide bombers; it was even possible that the first four had been tricked into sacrificing their lives. We can discount that idea now. Since Thursday, carrying on as normal has become more difficult.

No one was injured in the attacks, but I know people in Shepherds Bush who weren’t allowed to go home for two days. In Kilburn, Tulse Hill and Stockwell residents found the anti-terrorist operation had arrived on their doorsteps. If most of us have thus far escaped tragedy, few Londoners remain untouched by fear. Last Friday the police shot an innocent Brazilian man in Stockwell station, and the potential for disaster expanded. It’s not enough to spot terrorists on the tube, you must avoid looking like one.

Watching events unfold on television I had the sense of things getting unpleasantly close to home, and that was before someone left a nail bomb in the park where my children play. I know this hardly compares to the Blitz, in which 43 000 Londoners perished, but I still find the idea of exhibiting pluck in the circumstances oddly draining. I feel lucky, but not plucky.

When Inter Milan soccer club tried to cancel its British tour, Livingstone’s outraged response rang curiously hollow. “We cannot allow the terrorists to change the way we live or they will be very close to their aim,” he said.

Who in London hasn’t changed the way they live, or had it changed for them? Yesterday I had to go through a police checkpoint to buy milk. People have stopped taking rucksacks out with them. They’ve stopped riding on the top deck of the bus.

On Sunday we were woken by the muffled crump of a controlled explosion. Although the bomb has been taken away, as I write this the police are still here and the park is still closed. For the moment I live in unprecedented safety, but I must admit I’m now afraid; afraid that another attack is imminent, afraid of the idea of 3 000 armed police on the streets; afraid that London will never be the same again; afraid that my children will find out how afraid I am. Carrying on as normal seems less politically freighted than it did two weeks ago, not least because it’s no longer really possible, but you can’t say that the terrorists have won just because the cops won’t let the postman deliver my Amazon order. — Â

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