LEADING ARTICLE: A letter to America

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The Independent Online
The tiny crushed baby in the Oklahoma fireman's arms on every front page around the world will be an abiding image of horror. So many dead and so many babies.

What are you to make of this unaccustomed terror? Perhaps Britain can offer some consoling thoughts, since we have lived with bombs for over 20 years. Horrible, frightening, outrageous, inhuman, yet nonetheless it is survivable.

It will make a difference who the perpetrators are. If they turn out to be indigenous madmen springing from the wilder fringes of your own fissiparous society, it will cause soul-searching about the sickness within. If, for example, a far right group of terrorists proves to be responsible, you will be forced to examine political extremism within your borders and the racism that fuels it.

Alternatively, if a link is established with some foreign-based group or power, there will be a different type of panic. Foreigners have scarcely invaded or bombed your cities: there has been only Pearl Harbour since we burned down your White House in 1812. Yet it is what your popular demonology has feared most - the Russians are coming! Aliens. UFOs.

For the mainland British, the Irish have been somewhere in between these two categories. We knew the terrorists were to some extent our own, spawned from the savagery of Good Queen Bess and the Merrie England that we celebrate with such selective nostalgia. And yet they were still foreigners. We never cared enough when they bombed the life and livelihoods out of one another over there. But when they hit the mainland, that was a news story.

You have always been unreasonably afraid of terrorism, perhaps because your wars have mostly been played out far away. We remember how tourism from America dipped drastically after every bombing campaign in London. We remember how Sylvester Stallone, Rambo himself, was once too anxious to fly here.

How have we lived with it? Extraordinarily well. The fear was that it would tear us apart, turn us into a defensive, frightened police state. The IRA hoped it would poison the body politic. It did produce one alarming piece of legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a suspension of Habeas Corpus it is to be hoped your Constitution would make impossible.

But the most surprising aspect of the 309 mainland bombings was how little effect they had on British society. Beyond the shock, anger, disgust and pity for the victims, it united rather than separated us. You will find that bombs that hit indiscriminately at rich and poor, black and white, bring people together, even the politicians who agree on nothing else.

In dangerous modern societies, fear is as random and unreasonable as the danger itself. But we did learn to make rational assessments of the risks of bombs. Even shopping in Oxford Street in the days before Christmas - a frequent target for bombs - the odds of being in the wrong shop at the wrong time seemed remote enough to keep the street jam-packed. Even on the front line in Northern Ireland, most people managed to live remarkably normal lives.

The facts are that between 1972 and 1994, 118 people died as a result of IRA terrorism in mainland Britain and 1872 have been injured. That makes bombs a low-level risk, when 3,651 people were killed on the roads just last year and 46,784 people were seriously injured. Most air passengers still hold their breath on take-off, yet air is the safest form of transport and 40 times less dangerous than driving. We are unreasonably terrified of violent crime committed by strangers, though with 727 people murdered last year the risk has not risen in 15 years,and most are killed not by strangers but by their nearest and dearest.

Unreasoning fear is the enemy to guard against. Beware of instant retaliation or over-hasty lynch-law, discrediting your justice system as we did ours on too many occasions. Diligent security systems and effective intelligence are unsatisfying and expensive alternatives but work better than rapid revenge. If you are to be subjected to further attacks, your reaction may be more dangerous than terrorist bombs.