July 21, 2007

In a city scarred forever by terror, New Yorkers could be forgiven for fearing the worst. I am referring to last Thursday’s Lexington Avenue explosion which had everyone experiencing 9/11 deja vu. Shoppers ran for cover, dodging flying rubble, while a truck was swallowed when the tarmac opened up into a giant crater. But not to worry. As everyone knows,  it was an explosion caused in an underground steam pipe. The point of my story is the reaction to the blast. A woman died from a heart attack and at least thirty people were injured in the panic, some seriously. I was not there, but was witness when a small airplane plunged into a building near my house last Autumn—killing the pilot, a New York Yankee pitcher. That was when I realized that average Americans are not exactly cool under fire.

Europeans are often derided by Hollywood scriptwriters and late night comedians as quick to leave the field of battle, but I’d hate to see, say, New Yorkers’ reactions to the firestorm which engulfed Dresden and Hamburg, not to mention Berlin. Further south, when I was a young boy in Athens, we were pounded daily by the American and British air forces, but as far as I know the pounding had very little effect on me or any other Greek. Our house, north of Athens, was near the royal summer palace and its tiny military airport which the Germans had turned into a base. There was many a time when I ran out of the shelter thinking the silver foils released by the Allied planes were chocolates. (It was a way of disorienting the crude anti-aircraft radar possessed by the Axis forces). More than once a kind German trooper emerged from his trench to stop me from getting pulverized.

And I won’t even go into Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the firebombing of Tokyo by the kindly Curtis Le May. So, what is the point of my story? Easy: I happened to be in London couple of weeks ago when the bombs failed to go off. My English friends insisted we dine at Wilton’s, one block away from where the car bomb was located, as a matter of principle. When the next day a bomb did go off in the Glasgow airport, burning only the suicide bomber but no innocents present, I particularly liked the monosyllabic reaction of one John Smeaton, a baggage handler who tackled one of the fleeing terrorists: “This is Glasgow, you know, we’ll be aboot ye.”

In other words, we don’t let anyone do this in our backyard without a rather severe beating. There were no screams, no one got hysterical, and no one had a heart attack. Contrasting the calm that prevailed in England after the July 2005 attacks, in which tens were killed and hundreds injured, with those following the U.S. and Spanish ones, one is struck by the calm of the former. Perhaps it’s because British values reside not in trite phrases a-la-Bush, but in institutions. In peace time Brits can be prickly, aggressive, dour and unpleasant. But these very traits equip the people admirably when dealing with terrorism. Maybe Bush and Cheney should turn down the rhetoric. And look toward those “friends” like the Saudis and the Gulf states whose deep pockets are once again financing Qaeda operatives and setting up new training camps. But as they say, if you want to win power, play to the emotions, not the reason. In America it works every time.


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