| 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 wasnt
an option of staying away. It was an option about using the
tube and I didnt 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
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
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 didnt 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 hadnt 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 Citizens 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 didnt like that reaction.