ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — In Britain, crisis is often indistinguishable from farce. Take, for instance, events in London earlier this month. A man dressed like Batman climbed to the balcony of Buckingham Palace using a household ladder. An undercover reporter smuggled fake bomb equipment into Parliament. Finally, a group of posh protesters stormed the House of Commons to assert their right to hunt foxes with hounds.
Not long ago, all this would have seemed hilarious. Britain's quaint approach to security used to suggest a country at peace with itself. Visiting Americans have always found it rather charming that public buildings are often guarded by a Royal guardsman dressed in knee breeches and silk stockings armed with a sword, rather than a burly soldier in full body armor carrying an assault rifle.
Back in 1984, not long after the IRA tried to murder the entire British cabinet, I visited the House of Lords to do research. I showed up at the gate and told the guard my business. He took a quick look inside my briefcase and then gave me a pass made on an ancient mimeograph machine. I was then pointed in the direction of the library. Had I wanted to, I could have wandered anywhere in the building.
At noon, I went to eat my lunch along the Thames. When I returned to the House of Lords, I showed my pass and was waved through. No one looked in my bag. I could easily have smuggled in a bomb, but the guard apparently assumed that, since I was obviously a thoroughly decent chap, that wasn't really a possibility.
Granted, my experience predates Sept. 11, 2001. I would hope that security measures are now a great deal tighter. But after the events of last week, I doubt they are.
Contrast this with a more recent experience - my visit to the American Embassy in Dublin. The building is surrounded by an iron fence and car-bomb barriers. The visitor is first interviewed by guards at the gate, who inspect and X-ray bags. A full-body search is then performed. Bags are left at the gate, with the visitor allowed only a few papers. After this process is complete, the visitor is escorted to the embassy building, whereupon a second search is conducted.
OK, Americans are rather protective of their embassies, given the predilection of terrorists to blow them up. But stringent security is evident at virtually every American government installation, be it office block or museum. Anyone who has visited Washington recently will have noticed how the place now resembles a city under siege.
Americans have accepted the new protective measures for a number of reasons. After Sept. 11, they crave a security blanket. But they are also much more accustomed to an obtrusive police presence than the average Londoner. The US is a more violent society, with more guns in circulation. Long before 9/11, pistol-packing security guards were commonplace - at banks, cinemas, and shopping malls.
In contrast to the British, Americans aren't burdened by tradition when it comes to security. The ease with which protesters penetrated the Commons this week was due in part to arcane regulations regarding the distribution of authority, which evolved long before Oliver Cromwell tangled with King Charles I back in the 17th century. Police officers aren't allowed near the debating chamber. When the prime minister enters, his bodyguards must remain behind. This explains why the pro-hunt protesters were subdued not by police, but by a group of unarmed Commons security employees in frock coats who looked as if they belonged to Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks.
The paraphernalia of security - the funny hats, silk stockings, and bejeweled swords - are ancient symbols of open government. Britain is an old country and a country that wants to remain old. A lot of people seem to think that if the debating chamber is surrounded by heavily armed guards, Britain will cease to be a democracy. The great irony of the hunt demonstration was that the activists, in seeking to defend one ancient tradition, exposed the absurdity of another.
After last week's scares, some Britons want to imitate American fashion for security. But there's a fine line between precaution and paranoia. In the US, security measures are now status symbols. The importance of one's job is measured by the thickness of the concrete barriers outside one's office. Security has also become an alternative to a more fundamental political response to terrorism. An intrusive police presence encourages the illusion that the wider problem is being addressed.
We need a sense of proportion. Beefed-up security in Washington has not prevented occasional bioterrorism scares. The determined terrorist will find a way to infiltrate almost any fortress, especially if he's not afraid to die. In any case, the deadliest atrocities of late were not attacks on government buildings, but "soft" targets - the Twin Towers, a nightclub, a rail station, and a school.
Security at Westminster should be tightened. Replacing Beefeaters and those of their ilk with a cordon of commandos will not destroy democracy. But the British should not fool themselves into thinking that they can stop every terrorist, for that is possible only if they all retreat to bunkers. The great dilemma of modern times is how to defend the life we love without also destroying it.
• Gerard DeGroot is professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.