diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 16, 2004

London Prepared?

It was hard to be certain but I sensed that people were looking a little uneasy on the Underground yesterday. Maybe that was just their regular Monday morning back-to-work look but maybe it was something else, a subconscious response to events last week 800 miles away. Not that most people enjoy rush hour tube travel at the best of times, packed head-to-armpit in overcrowded carriages, but somehow those carriages didn't seem quite so overcrowded yesterday either. Those of us wielding newspapers flashed bleak headlines across the carriage, while travellers with bags clutched them a little closer. It's as if Londoners are silently praying not to be 'there' when 'it' happens, not that anyone quite knows where 'there' is, what 'it' might be, or when 'it' might happen. Me, I prefer to continue to wonder if, not when.

Last week's terrorist atrocity in Spain reminded us all how fragile freedom is, how much we take it for granted and how easy it is to lose it in a flash. Anyone can board a train in Europe, travelling anywhere, carrying anything. It's not like boarding a plane where we expect to queue for hours in advance and have all our darkest recesses searched lest we have even a nail file stashed away somewhere. Trains and stations remain very public spaces, very accessible but also very exposed. And long may that remain so. Should we ever end up flashing an ID card to pre-book a ticket to travel three stops down the Victoria Line then the terrorists would undoubtedly have won. And there would still be plenty of other targets elsewhere for them to hit anyway.

London can't afford police patrols in every Underground carriage, which is just as well because there are hundreds of carriages, most of them quite full enough already. The police are introducing plain-clothes patrols, or at least they've told us they are (it is by definition hard to be sure). They've also promised to increase 'stop and search' checks by uniformed officers, although the chance of any of them uncovering 'it' 'there' if 'it' happens must be absolutely tiny. No, our best chance lies with the latest campaign to ask the travelling public for increased vigilance. Our eyes can be everywhere. And better to bring the entire network to a halt for every unattended carrier bag than to miss one anonymous rucksack opportunely abandoned underfoot in the peak hour rush.

London's been here many times before, of course, and London's by no means unique. The IRA's bloody mainland bombing campaign kept Londoners alert thirty, twenty, even as recently as ten years ago, and you still can't find a litter bin on the Underground as a result. And sixty years ago there was the Blitz, night after night of terrible bombing, and night after night of terrible casualties. 17 died in a direct hit on Marble Arch tube station, 68 at Balham, 56 at Bank, 173 at Bethnal Green... and even that was but a tiny fraction of the overall death toll. A very heavy price was paid but London continued, and so it will again. Even if 'it' happens which, please God, 'it' never does.

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