Londoners' behavior gives confidence to the fearful

No one does calm better than the English. That was demonstrated on Thursday when London finally fell victim to the terrorist strike it had long expected. In the bloody aftermath, the most striking feature was the way everyone - from Tony Blair to the ordinary bobby on the street - coped in quiet dignity. If the terrorists' aim was to sow panic, they failed completely.

As an American who has lived in Britain for 25 years, I've come to admire certain British qualities, while others still drive me crazy. What has become apparent is that, in a crisis, they're brilliant.

It's often said that the British, when hell breaks loose, react by putting the kettle on to make a cup of tea. That's a very old, but accurate, cliché. The proverbial stiff upper lip emerges when havoc descends.

Granted, it's easy to be sentimental in the aftermath of a crisis; objective critical faculties are easily jettisoned. It's also folly to compare the reaction of Londoners to that of the people of New York or Madrid, because their tragedies were fundamentally different in timing, nature, and magnitude. Nevertheless, taken in isolation, the way Londoners have behaved is deeply impressive. It should give confidence to those who live in fear at the same time that it disheartens those determined to do evil.

Watching the news on Thursday, I was struck by the small examples of noble, quiet stoicism. Police herded crowds to safety with the aplomb of a bobby directing traffic at a busy Saturday market. The British police, as the G-8 riots have demonstrated, can be ferocious in their defense of the establishment - but in a genuine emergency, there's none better.

Cameras focused on a middle-aged man with his mobile phone, crying uncontrollably. The young policewoman next to him threw her arm around his shoulders, drew him close, then quietly took his phone and completed the call he was trying to make.

Then there was the senior police officer who, interviewed just hours after the terrorists struck, wanted only to talk about the need to preserve civil liberties. "We do not want to jeopardize what is good in Britain," he said, "in order to root out what is bad."

So much of London's strength lies in its diversity. At times, that has been a source of strife, but on this occasion it was manifest as tenacious solidarity. It seemed that more than half of the ordinary citizens interviewed at the scenes of devastation spoke with a strange accent. There were Poles, Serbs, Somalis, Australians, Americans, and quite a few Muslims of various nationalities. None were natives, but all were Londoners. They seemed to have absorbed that British sense of restraint by osmosis. Indeed, the complete absence of rancor among the scores of people interviewed on the streets of London was striking - and certainly inspiring.

As for Mr. Blair, he once again displayed that uncanny knack of projecting himself as both a statesman and an ordinary Briton. His steely determination was perfectly appropriate, but so too was his heartfelt emotion. Blair's distinguishing feature is that he knows instinctively when it's appropriate - nay, essential - to speak without script, from the heart. He's also blessed with a talent for eloquence when doing so. In the aftermath of this crisis, the British people were reminded of what makes a leader great.

It seems to me that the terrorists, whoever they are, made a great mistake in attacking London, a city so good at providing example to the world. Londoners were already on high mettle because of their success in securing the 2012 Olympic Games. A few bombs won't dent their pride. Besides, they're old hands at this game. London, unique among the cities recently attacked, has long experience with being bombed. Not long ago, it was the IRA; before that, it was the Luftwaffe, and before that the Zeppelins. The spirit of the Blitz, when Londoners supposedly sang while the Germans dropped bombs on them, might be romantic myth, but it is a myth that people in the city devoutly believe. Coping is written in their genes.

For the past few years, Londoners have expended enormous energy and millions of pounds in an effort to prove that theirs is a great city, worthy of hosting the Olympics. That effort came to fruition Wednesday. The next day, in just a few hours, the city made an even more profound and meaningful demonstration of its greatness. At times like this, I feel very proud of my adopted country.

Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews. His latest book is 'The Bomb: A Life.'

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