LEADING ARTICLE: A letter to America

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Scrum Master (Agile, Java, team recruitment)

£45000 - £60000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Scrum M...

Junior Asset Manager

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Junior As...

Investment Analyst

£33000 - £40000 Per Annum Discretionary profit share: The Green Recruitment Co...

Supply teachers required in Cambridge

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Supply teachers requi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jennifer Aniston has said it's 'not fair' to place the pressure of motherhood on women  

Like Jennifer Aniston, I am no less of a woman because I am childless

Rachael Lloyd
 

i Editor's Letter: The persistence of a privately educated elite

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?