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Weekly Features
Letter from New York
Mathew Tombers is Managing Director of Intermat, Inc., ( a television company which executive produces programs and consults with industry companies on a variety of issues. Intermat, Inc. is currently involved in approximately thirty hours of television in various stages for a variety of networks. He is one of the Executive Producers of OFF TO WAR, a ten hour series for Discovery Times and for a one hour on international adoptions for Discovery Health. He has consulted a variety of companies, including Ted Turner Documentaries, WETA, Betelgeuse Productions, and Creation Films, Lou Reda Productions as well as many others.
August 6, 2005

This week's letter comes from London. Mat calls it ...

Of Sirens and Signs…

Like many a baby boomer, London was my first European city. It was during the time of “The Troubles” and it was not unusual for mailboxes to blow up.

I have a recollection my mother expressed concern over traveling to London but I was not to be stopped. At twenty whatever, I felt it was time to begin seeing more of the world than the North American continent.

It was rather the same this past week in London; friends now articulated their concern I would be in London andwe had Islamic Extremists blowing up busses and the Underground.

Still, I had business to do in London and it wasn’t an option of staying away. It was an option about using “the tube” and I didn’t the first couple of days. I took taxis. [I confess a love for London taxis, idiosyncratic, large, usually black, boxy and generally driven by interesting characters.]

The city had about it an air of being under siege; never in my trips to London have I ever heard as many sirens. Everyone was talking about them. The general civil silence associated with London was constantly shattered by screaming sirens. They fed the general sense of jumpiness.

Eventually, I felt emboldened to take the tube. It seemed everyone was watching everyone else, albeit attempting to not be obvious about it. With that stiff upper lip British attitude, some were determinedly ignoring everything and everyone. Others constantly gave furtive looks over the tops of their newspapers.

At one stop a young Middle Eastern man got on board wearing a heavy, bulky coat. I found myself thinking: oh my, I should have taken a taxi. He rode for two stops and then got off.

I breathed more easily. As I did, I realized I was infected with the low grade fear that was walking the streets of London. I didn’t avoid the tube after that though I was startlingly aware I was not ensconced in the general sense of ease that London normally gives me.

The staff at my hotel was constantly attentive, friendly, and upbeat. It was just that the hotel was empty. Tourism was down, business was down. It was the 9/11 effect, applied to London. It had gotten worse since the second round, even though those hadn’t killed.

The sirens also marked a series of arrests; streets were closed off and filled with flak jacketed officers.

The news was filled with the agonizing of a country that could not quite assimilate that young men, British born, of whatever origin, would blow themselves up, along with dozens of their fellow citizens.

There is also a conversation occuring in the U.K., as in the United States, about what are or are not appropriate measures to stop terrorism. A Citizen’s Group is suing the City of London regarding its search policies. My taxi driver let me know that day he had no sympathy for these kinds of “do-gooders”.

As I commented to him, these are complicated times and the issues are complicated and delicate. I have a very real concern about the erosion of civil liberties we seem to be facing in the United States.

The next day my driver arrived to take me to Heathrow for the flight back to New York. He was of Islamic origin and rather surly at first. With the sirens, flak jacketed police, the constant drum conversation in the press about the “chaps next door” who became terrorists, I found my internal conversations bordering on paranoia. He had been alone with my bags for three minutes; he must have inserted a bomb!

In reality, his name is Kardo. He lives in Chiswick with his wife and two children and is an Iranian refugee.

The lesson is that fear is primal, real and it is in our DNA. It is fear that has resulted in the rounds of Muslim bashings that have escalated in London these past weeks and it is that same fear that wrapped itself around my throat so that I thought dark thoughts about a person I had just met based on his looks and faith.

I didn’t like that reaction.