Last week’s attacks on London have been repeatedly called Britain’s equivalent of the attacks of Sept. 11, a comparison that should not be made. Not only does Britain have decades of terrorism experiences prior to Sept. 11, the way in which last week’s situation was handled by the British also showed that American officials and the American media still have a lot to learn.
Clearly the “first responders” that were involved in Sept. 11 rescue missions did an amazing job bringing as many victims to safety as humanly possible, often at the cost of the rescuers’ own lives. This is in no way an attempt to criticize these individuals.
But looking objectively at how the flow of information and management of the situation went in both instances, the way in which the situation was handled in London shows monumental improvements over the response Sept. 11 caused, and Americans should learn from the example.
The situation in London could have been much worse had the public panicked. For the most part, though, Londoners remained remarkably calm.
The local media, in particular, played an important role in preserving the nation’s cool, making rescue operations considerably easier to coordinate and execute.
In the first few hours after the attack, for example, information was scarce. Yet, London-based TV and radio stations operated by ITV and the BBC only broadcast information they were sure was solid. For most of Thursday, British media were only confirming two deaths, a number that has sadly risen considerably since then.
This was in stark contrast to media coverage of Sept. 11 in the United States. While the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood in flames, CNN news commentators speculated how high the death toll would be and pegged it at 50,000.
The British government also reacted calmly and in an organized manner. Within a few hours of the attacks, British Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared on TV, albeit visibly shaken, and announced he would be flying back to the nation’s capital.
In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, President George W. Bush only confirmed that an attack had happened, then was whisked away to a “secure undisclosed location,” a term that would be heard many more times in the months thereafter. He eventually returned to the capital later that day, but the day was filled with speculation about where the nation’s leader was.
What Blair understood immediately was that his citizens needed to see him take charge, not cover.
One would hope that American politicians have learned their lessons. Sadly, this is not the case.
British officials were very careful not to jump to conclusions. The first time the word “terrorism” was used definitively was when Blair confirmed that there had indeed been bombings. The attacks, while similar to those in Madrid in March 2004, have so far not been conclusively tied to al-Qaida.
Yet, President Bush made an appearance shortly after Blair’s last Thursday and not only tied the attacks to the so-called War on Terror, he also specifically blamed Islamic extremists. It was obvious Bush was getting ahead of himself, which turned his statement more into an “I told you so,” rather than the words of a world leader expressing sympathy for those who may have been injured or killed in the attacks.
The contrast between the British and American governments could not be greater: Blair said this weekend they would do everything humanly possible to stop future attacks, but made it clear that such attacks may be “inevitable.” Blair also said he would not use the attacks to rush in legislation, such as the UK’s controversial proposal for national ID cards, a measure for which Blair has been fighting for years.
America, on the other hand, spent the months following Sept. 11 in a state of mass hysteria. (Now the president keeps lulling us into a false sense of safety by proclaiming “the American people are safer” as often as eight times per speech, or telling us to be scared, depending on how it is most politically convenient.)
Of course, the attacks on America were shocking, but, in such situations, the nation’s leaders need to be above knee-jerk reactions. Laws, the Patriot Act in particular, were passed with little thought on how such measures would limit the civil liberties that were supposedly under attack by the terrorists.
If last week’s attacks on London have proven one thing, it is that such hysteria is unnecessary. Democracy is possible, even in the face of terror.
Sebastian Meyer is a seniormajoring in geographyand the Oracle Opinion Editor.firstname.lastname@example.org