The Boston bombing has jarred my memories of living in London in the early ’90s. It’s a cliche to say that people are resilient, that they shrug off terrorism and get on with their lives, but there is much truth to that nonetheless. That’s how it will be in Boston – just as it was in London during my three-year stay, when the city was persistently nagged by the IRA.
On The Times op-ed page today, Boston novelist Dennis Lehane writes, “Boston took a punch on Monday – two of them, actually – that left it staggering for a bit. Flesh proved vulnerable, as flesh is wont to do, but the spirit merely trembled before recasting itself into something stronger than any bomb or rage.” That was precisely the sentiment in London, a city similarly populated with hardbitten hardasses who knew how to take a punch and keep going. Taking my cues from the natives, I learned to do the same.
A photo today of littered, deserted Boylston Street is particularly striking, because I saw that kind of scene so many times. In the spring of ’93, the IRA detonated a two-ton truck bomb in the heart of the city’s financial district, killing one, injuring 44, and creating half a mile of high-rise rubble. A day later I walked the length of that deserted sector, and you could hear a pin drop. (The only way I could give the mass wreckage some human scale was to write about the destruction of one medieval church.) This was barely a year after the IRA bombed a different stretch of the financial district, killing three and injuring 91.
In both instances, Londoners seethed for a few days; then they cleaned up and soldiered on. This was our definition of normal.
In my residential neighborhood (10 minutes on foot from the Beatles’ Abbey Road crosswalk), it wasn’t uncommon to be awakened by the thump of a nocturnal bomb going off somewhere in town. Or to go out for milk on a typical drizzly morning, only to discover that the local retail street had been cordoned off with yellow tape, and that the cops had inked “Security Alert” on whiteboard placards, all because an undetonated device had been discovered in a doorway. Or to ride the London Underground, only to be forcibly evacuated to street level because somebody – maybe IRA, maybe not – had left a smoldering something on a subway platform somewhere.
Everyone was on perpetual alert, particularly after what happened in March ’93 in the town of Warrington, near Liverpool, when an IRA bomb detonated in a trash can and killed two children. But they seemed to take it all in stride. A guy in a fish n’ chip shop once told me how the IRA had launched three mortars at 10 Downing Street in 1991, in a bid to kill the British prime minister, “and they landed in the back garden, within 50 feet of ‘im.” By his tone, he just as easily could have been talking about a surprise dusting of snow.
It was normal to open your backpack or workbag for inspection before being admitted to a movie theater. (That didn’t happen every time, but they liked to surprise you.) It was normal to walk down the street and discover that you were being watched by a camera. (The Brits were way ahead of us on public surveillance. An ACLU-type lawyer in London lamented to me in ’93, “We think, at least, that the camera use should be regulated, but the government has already said no to that.”) It was normal to reflexively back away from any trash bag left on a sidewalk. It was normal to drive near the financial district and be stopped by armed cops at a security checkpoint (the government called it “traffic management,” the critics called it “a ring of steel”).
I did a story once about the London definition of normal, and asked the locals whether it bothered them. A corporate clerk named Peg Ealey referenced her childhood memories of World War II: “I remember the Blitz. It was dirty and dusty and the food was uninteresting. But I said, ‘Blast that Hitler, let’s just get on with it.'”
London’s civil liberties squeeze is probably tighter than what we might be inclined to tolerate, post-Boston. We’ll surely write our own definition of a new normal. But London’s native spirit – its insoucient resilience – is already alive and well on these shores. Let’s just get on with it.
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