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One of the Lucky Ones

By Juliet McShannon
Special to The Lookout

LONDON -- On 7/7 those living in, working in and traveling through London became divided into two groups: the lucky and the unlucky. Two groups representing all nations, all creeds and all colors -- all targeted by terrorism.

I am one of the lucky ones. I was supposed to be in London on that day, at the time of the blasts, traveling to a destination where I would have taken the targeted underground train route. My appointment was postponed the evening before.

Britain’s 9/11 was smaller in scale and some may argue, on impact. If you view terrorism in terms of loss of life, then yes, our day of terror does not compare to 9/11 or the Madrid train bombing 18 months previously.

Yet how many of us are likely to forget the searing image of a red double-decker London bus peeled apart with only a few rows of seats on the upper deck stubbornly remaining upright?

It is those seats that have come to symbolize the resolve of the British people in the wake of the carnage that has so far taken 49 lives and wounded over 700. We are a nation that is standing tall, albeit shakily, against this infringement of the democratic values that we, and all democratic countries, hold so dear.

Lucy Milnes checks the headlines. Her friend was on the bus that exploded Thursday. (Photos by Juliet McShannon)

It seems incredulous that just one day earlier a feeling of euphoria and optimism pervaded this sceptred isle when it was chosen to host the Olympics in 2012.

In the two days that have passed since the attack, the opportunity for reflection has already presented itself in so short a time frame. I have been amazed at the measured, moderate outlook of most people I have spoken to, Brits and visitors alike who are still reeling from shock.

It is not difficult to see how the British have become stereotyped -- a phlegmatic people maintaining a stalwart 'stiff upper lip’ and adopting a ‘soldier-on’ attitude in the face of adversity.

There has been an absence of mass hysteria. No gung-ho cowboy retaliatory response. No reports of people standing on their soapbox advocating a 'shoot the bastards' approach to fundamentalism.

That is not to say we are not affected by this atrocity. Our muted response is dictated by the familiar. After all, Britain has experienced 30 years of IRA bombings and the legacy of two World Wars on our doorstep.

On the day of the bombing the city was understandably gridlocked. Instead of panicked chaos, throngs of people patiently stood in long lines waiting for water taxis to take them across the Thames. You could be mistaken for thinking it was just another busy day in London. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. Just a quiet, stoic resolve.

“This is not surprising,” says Roger Guthrie, a World War II veteran who now lives in Windsor, Greater London. “We survived the Blitz by just getting on with it -- we must do the same now.”

Guthrie is referring to the quiet defiance demonstrated by the British during the German bombing raids during the Second World War.

Ironically, 7/7 has taken place just a few days before National Commemoration Day on Sunday 10th of July, the date chosen to mark the 60th Anniversary of the End of the Second World War.

This “Blitz Spirit” handed down from generation to generation and firmly ingrained in this nation’s psyche is now visible in the way the British are responding to the events of 7/7.

A microcosm of this psyche is present in the little town of Maidenhead, Berkshire, where I am living at the moment. It is a town approximately 20 miles from London, and like many in its radius, one that provides a regular train service for London commuters traveling into London Paddington -- the main hub for the underground train network targeted by the terrorists.

Usually the platforms of Maidenhead station on a Saturday morning are crammed with people traveling to London to shop and visit attractions. The telltale signs of disruption and fear were present today, with the car park half empty and a strong police presence.

Parking lot at Maidenhead station

Yet, a few people stood in line to buy their ticket into London, including 30-year-old Lucy Milnes of Maidenhead, traveling into London today to see a gallery.

“There is a risk, but there is a greater risk by just crossing the road or getting in your car and journeying,” she tells me. “I am a little nervous, but you can’t avoid it forever.”

Milnes briefly pauses at a newspaper stand where images of the carnage bring home the horror. Milnes is concerned for her Australian friend who was on the bus that exploded.

“She was on the lower deck when it happened. She is in hospital at the moment with burns to her arms. Part of the roof hit her when the bomb went off.”

She shrugs and walks toward the platform.

This ‘human angle’ has been the approach favored by most of the national reporting in broadsheets and local news channels. Even when news broke that al-Qaeda has now claimed responsibility, a few mainstream radio and television stations chose to lead with an update on the death toll and the condition of the survivors first.

Of the cross-section of people that I have spoken to since the attack, the majority seems to feel sorry for the Muslim communities that may now bare the brunt of misdirected hatred.

“The problem is there is no defined categories of fanaticism in Islam”, says Phillip Perkins, from Cornwall. “They all get tarred with the same brush”.

Muslim Rashid Syed, who immigrated to England from Pakistan eight years ago doesn’t seem too concerned with potential finger pointing.

“The first time I heard of al-Qaeda was after 9/11,” he says. “Under Islam any behavior like that will be punished. So if they did do it, they will be punished. If they did do it. We don’t support them.”

Other Muslims are more fearful of reprisals.

“At the back of my heart, I worry,” says British-born Shaid Afzal, 21, who now works in his family’s shop in Maidenhead. “I have Muslim and non-Muslim friends.

“We don’t talk about it, but I am upset that it may happen, that someone will come up to me and blame me for what has happened,” he says.

Visiting Frenchman, Jean Leveque and his wife Marie, felt that France had escaped such terror attacks because of a determination to befriend Muslim countries.

“Catholicism is dying in France, and the Muslim faith will soon overtake it,” Jean Leveque says. “We didn’t get involved in Iraq and we have been okay so far.”

When asked what he thought of the British response to the attack, Leveque replies, “We were on the motorway when it happened and were just impressed at the computerized road signs that told people to listen to their radios and avoid going into London.”

Political debate over security issues such as the introduction of identity cards for all Britons will no doubt step up a gear in the weeks to follow, but right now, we are a nation going through the same grieving process as our U.S. compatriots four years ago -- grieving for those that have lost their loved ones so unnecessarily, for those now wishing they had kissed their loved ones goodbye before leaving for work, or watching them leave to go about their business in one of the greatest, most visited cities in the world.

Juliet McShannon is a frequent contributor to The Lookout

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