Monday, November 14, 2005

Trembling Lips
One of the popular stereotypes we have about the British regards their fabled resolve. No matter what terrible thing happens, they're supposed to be able to greet it with a wry remark and go on about their days. Anything more--certainly any sign of being unable to cope--was, for a long time, considered to be unseemly. But in the November Harper's (not yet available online), veteran journalist Charles Glass compares British attitudes toward the July 2005 bombings in London, in which 56 people were killed, with their reactions to the Blitz during World War II.
Between September 1940 and May 1941, the Luftwaffe bombarded London with thousands of tons of high explosives and incendiaries to prepare the ground for an invasion that never came. During that first month, amost 7,000 people died and another 10,000 were wounded. Blacked-out London, with its Anderson shelters and air-raid wardens, may have been horrifying. It was also romantic. The British politicians and newspapers who insisted the London of July 7, 2005 resembled London in late 1940 were wrong. London's past--the bulldog spirit, the stiff upper lip, phlegm, and that greatest of lost British virtues, understatement--had become another country. Tony Blair's London, the extension of Margaret Thatcher's, is a fantasy city of hyperbole and, when confronting the slightest threat, hysteria. . . .

Two days before Christmas 1940, the Daily Telegraph's Frederick Salfeld wrote, "Every morning, no matter how many bombs have been dropped in the night, London's transport runs, letters are delivered, milk and bread come to one's door, confectioners get their supplies, and the fruiterers' windows are filled." [One day after the July bombings] I found one open restaurant called Automat on Dover Street that was owned by an Argentinean and staffed by Poles. A month later, Transport for London announced that use of the tube was down 10 to 15 percent during the week and 30 percent on weekends.
So what happened? Glass doesn't really know, either, except to suggest that when we burrow in upon ourselves as people did after the London bombings, it distracts us from the reality that the Iraq war, and "a century of British and then American interference in Muslim lands" has come home. If we recognized the reality, we'd ask impolite questions and make uncomfortable demands on our leaders. So it's useful to the Blair government (as it is useful to the current administration on our side of the puddle) to stoke fear, thus keeping citizens dependent on the government for their security and less likely to question its actions.

Maybe it's also a symptom of our therapeutic culture, which encourages just the opposite of a stiff upper lip, with an imperative to Get in Touch With Your Feelings. In Britain, this first emerged with the death of Princess Diana in 1997, when the phenomenon of the spontaneous memorial--flowers, poems, stuffed animals--reached the gates of the royal family's palaces, and the way British public opinion demanded that the royal family, right up to Queen Elizabeth herself, participate in the spectacle of ostentatious public grief. Their refusal to do so at first was seen not as typical British behavior, but some kind of affront to Diana's memory. It certainly was not in keeping with the touchy-feely Oprah-ization of modern life.

But maybe the simplest explanation for the way people act now, in Britain and here in the United States when confronting the terrorist threat, is the most likely to be correct: Terrorists set out to terrorize us, and they've succeeded in doing so. Where once our society had some coherence, some conception of common goals and common good, we're now atomized, each of us living in a world of private choices. And so we see ourselves as individually vulnerable to terrorists, as if the Wicked Osama had declared jihad on us personally. Such an attitude is so unlike the Brits of 1940, who knew they were individually vulnerable, but had faith that they would defeat Hitler together, and make a better world in the process. Glass again:
Today, no one believes the world will be better than when the war on terror began. . . . That [unimproved world] is the world London anticipates, so why sing about pride and defiance at the foe? We are not, as in 1940, all in it together.
Those who died in the Blitz, then, could be said to have died for something worthwhile. And perhaps the reason we're so afraid of terrorists in 2005 is that we know, deep down, that dying in the "war on terror" is dying for nothing.

(A slightly different version of this post also appears at Gather.com.)

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?