Uncowed in London

By Anne Applebaum (THE WASHINGTON POST, 03/07/07):

“Yes, the Piccadilly line is running slowly today; took me ages to get here.” I first learned that someone had tried to set off two car bombs in London late last week from two women talking in a shop. Parts of the city center had been blocked off for a few hours that morning, they complained — so tiresome, especially on a Friday, when one had hoped to go home early. Thank goodness, someone else said later, that by afternoon the area was clear, and the Piccadilly line — the tube line that runs beneath the target site — was operating normally. For many Londoners, discussion of the car bombs ended there.

Had the bombs gone off in the early morning hours as apparently planned, there could have been hundreds of casualties. One of the cars was parked near a packed nightclub; the other was nearby, in the center of the theater district. But this is a city that survived the IRA’s terrorist campaign of the 1990s. It is also a city full of people who have to get to work in the morning, people who care quite a lot about traffic. I’m not going to lapse here into a string of cliches about British stoicism, but it really was a relief to encounter no hysteria whatever.

Since then the country has experienced another terrorist attempt: On Saturday two men rammed a jeep containing gas cylinders into a Glasgow airport terminal. Clearly, the attacks were meant to be coordinated. Probably they were meant to threaten the new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, who took office last week. But by any measure they failed, causing little physical or psychological damage. Given that cars packed with explosives are used with great “success” every day by insurgents in Iraq, where they wreak enormous havoc and leave people fearful and angry, it is worth asking why the attack plots in Britain failed.

First, the London bombers failed because they were amateurish. The British branch of al-Qaeda, or of al-Qaeda imitators, does not have weapons of mass destruction, whether biological, chemical or nuclear. Nor does it have even Semtex, the plastic explosive favored by the IRA. If the group in Britain has supporters in the governments or secret services of foreign countries, they aren’t very resourceful supporters: The car bombs were made of tanks of propane gas and rusty nails. These turned out to be covered with fingerprints and other forensic evidence, enabling British police to carry out raids and make arrests across the country over the weekend.

It’s likely that the perpetrators will have been observed by one of central London’s multiple video cameras as well: Though we sometimes think otherwise, Western technology is still far superior to the tools available to would-be terrorists.

More important, though, the London bomb plot failed because open Western societies are more resilient than we sometimes think they are. One of the Piccadilly car bombs was discovered because an ambulance crew, responding to an unrelated call, saw smoke seeping from a car trunk and alerted the police. The other car was illegally parked, and London’s super-vigilant, much-hated traffic wardens towed it to a parking lot, where someone noticed that it smelled of gasoline and alerted the police.

That Britain has functional ambulance services and working traffic wardens, all of whom are civic-minded enough to call the police when they suspect something is amiss, may not sound extraordinary. But these are precisely the kinds of institutions that are missing in many places, among them Baghdad, a city where parking isn’t exactly a public preoccupation and where the civic-minded avoid the police, who are, fairly or unfairly, suspected of everything from ethnic cleansing to taking bribes.

In Glasgow the story was similar. The two men who drove their car into an airport door were stopped by police working together with pedestrians, one of whom wrestled the driver — who had just doused himself with gasoline — to the ground. The authorities weren’t successful by themselves, in other words; they were successful in conjunction with a supportive public. Again, this particular form of cooperation isn’t available in many countries, and certainly not in Iraq, where the authorities don’t enjoy the public’s trust at all.

And the conclusion? The women in the shop were right. At least this time around, the correct reaction to the London bomb attempts was not to keep children home from school, not to call in sick at work, not to rush out and purchase duct tape, but to complain about the traffic. The London bombs are indeed an ominous reminder that the terrorist war on the West continues. They were also an excellent reminder that we — and our open societies, and our liberal values — are still winning.