The Response of the British People to Terrorism in the United States

Mr. Langley is a retired Curator of Naval History at the Smithsonian Institution. In recent years, he has served as an Adjunct Professor of History at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

My wife and I visited England in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, and we traveled about that country during a three week period. While visiting historic and cultural sites, as well as shopping, dining, staying at B&B's and enjoying pubs, we had an opportunity to observe and to converse with a cross section of the British people while their country moved toward an active participation in the fight against the Taliban.

Originally scheduled to depart on the evening of September 11, our flight was delayed for a week. At Heathrow Airport we boarded a bus and traveled to a small town in the Cotswold area of Britain. Our speech and dress easily identified us as Americans, and in the course of conversations, various people in the town offered their sympathies over the tragedies that had befallen the United States. Many also indicated their support for the stand that President Bush had taken. Prime Minister Tony Blair also seemed to enjoy broad public approval. Such manifestations of sympathy and support were repeated in communities from the Cotswolds to Portsmouth, and from London to Durham to the Lake Region. There seemed to be a personal need on the part of ordinary British citizens to show that they cared about the American people in a time of crisis. They also thanked us for visiting their country.

In addition to President Bush the British people that we met seemed to have a great respect for Secretary of State Colin Powell and for the calm and statesmanlike way he addressed questions. We also heard a number of enthusiastic remarks about the leadership of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He is undoubtedly the best known mayor in England and perhaps in Europe as well. Some gray haired persons, who remembered other wars, pondered how long it might take to win this one and how firm the newly formed alliances would remain intact. This also included the possibility of changing views on the part of the leadership and/or the members of the Tory and Conservative political parties.

The tragedies associated with the destruction of the World Trade Center were remembered everywhere. Near our hotel in Knightsbridge section of London, a local firehouse placed a bucket in front of the station and a sign requesting contributions for the families of the fire fighters of New York. By the end of our four day stay in London, that fire station and others in England had reportedly collected L 34,000. On a Saturday in Bath, members of a local fire company moved a hook and ladder truck into a busy shopping area and parked it. They decorated the truck with British and American flags. Members of the company then moved about the street carrying white fire buckets and soliciting contributions for their comrades in New York. Other buckets dangled from the truck. The crowd seemed to respond well to these appeals.

Not all public manifestations of sympathy were associated with fund raising. Outside the cathedral in York, wrapped around a light pole, was a small American flag, along with bouquets of flowers and notes of sympathy. A few public places in other cities had their own book of condolences.

A number of British people wondered if they would experience attacks similar to those in the United States. As we discussed this issue one morning over breakfast in a B&B, a young British woman told us that she worked in a tall building in London. She had thought about the risk and was fatalistic about it. In her view, if it were your time to die, then you died. Adding to the fear about airplanes and bombs were the early reports from the United States concerning the interests of some terrorists in crop dusting planes or germ warfare. Bold headlines in tabloid newspapers that were read by riders in the London subway contributed to somber reflections.

While newspapers and television stations reported on the travels of Prime Minister Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the armed forces of the United States and its coalition partners took up positions within range of Afghanistan targets, the British people prepared themselves for war. When it began, most seemed to accept it as inevitable. While visiting the Imperial War Museum in London, I encountered a group of grammar school children in a section of an exhibit on World War II. I ask their teacher if they were studying the British home front during that conflict. He said that they were. At another spot in the Museum, I found two girls, about eleven or twelve years of age, who were seated on a floor in front of a museum case with sketch pads on their laps. I asked what they were drawing. They said they were sketching a rifle for an art class. Two young men with spiked hair cuts, tattoos and body piercings stood by me as we watched old newsreel footage on the German invasion of France in 1940. On all levels a new spirit of comradeship seemed to be evident. The international dimensions of this feeling were underscored when we left Heathrow on a return flight to the United States and saw on the ground an American flag proudly displayed.

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