One week ago, my children, my mother, my sister, my stepfather and I emerged from the Russell Square station of the Piccadilly line of the London Underground, on our way to visit the British Museum. It was our third day in London, and our third day of whisking back and forth across the city on the "Tube." As I recall, the topic of most import that morning was explaining to my kids the pros and cons of whether the Elgin Marbles should be returned to the Parthenon.
Imagine my shock Thursday morning when I learned that a bomb had exploded during morning rush hour on an Underground train traveling between the King's Cross and Russell Square stops of the Piccadilly line. That, as of this writing, some 21 people had died in the King's Cross bombing, part of a coordinated series of attacks on the London transportation system that is already being labeled one of the worst terrorist incidents in the history of the United Kingdom. Though I am now some 7,000 miles away from the scene of the crime, I feel closer to this madness than I ever did to the World Trade Center attack. I can still hear the rumble of the Underground, still see the crowds pouring through the turnstiles. I still have English pounds in my pockets! It is all too easy to imagine having been on that train with my children, to be fighting through the mayhem of smoke and murder and despair.
London must be dizzy. The city was in a remarkably good mood last week. Wimbledon was in full swing, the Live 8 concerts were the talk of the entertainment world, Tony Blair was scoring points on the world stage with his push for African debt relief. When the city received the unexpected news that it had won the bid for the 2012 Olympics, it must have been hard, as a Londoner, to imagine life getting any better.
Now they must be wondering if it can get any worse. Wondering, as do we all, who is next? Wondering if the U.K. will now be set to follow even more closely in the wake of George Bush's America, with regular terror alerts, intrusive Patriot Act-style legislation, endless lines at airports. Will London, a city that seemed to be thriving on openness last week, start to close down?
I ask this question because the most striking thing I noticed in London last week was how the city had changed since I had last visited 10 years earlier. Ever since the glory days of the British Empire, London has been a multiethnic city, but I was unprepared for the post-Cold War European landscape. The spread of the European Union to former Eastern bloc countries and elsewhere, with its consequent relaxation of border controls between members of the community, has clearly set in motion some dramatic internal migrations. In London, the service industry seemed to have been taken over by Eastern Europeans. Exotic accents abounded -- the young blonde bringing me a pint of bitter at the local pub was as likely to be from Poland or the Czech Republic as she was from the U.K. So was the ticket seller at the Tower of London, and so on.
As we walked through St. James Park one morning, my son noted that we appeared to be the only family speaking English. And why not, when traveling from Budapest to London appears to be as stress-free as hopping a JetBlue flight from Oakland, Calif., to Long Beach, Calif.
And this seemed like a good thing. London came across as a truly international city -- a meeting point between cultures and communities. Even the food was better. To me, the city offered dramatic affirmation of the advantages that come from opening up borders instead of closing them down, and appeared to ratify the quest to seek closer political, economic and cultural linkages instead of turning one's back in a nativist huff. Admittedly, the future of continued political integration in Europe is in doubt, given French reluctance to move forward, but viewed against the backdrop of a several-decade-long transition, Europe still seems like a hopeful model for further integration, on a global basis. Not to be too corny about it, but John Lennon's lyrics "Imagine there's no countries, it isn't hard to do, nothing to kill or die for" do spring to mind. Sixty years ago Europe ripped itself apart in an orgy of bloodshed. It's well nigh impossible to imagine that happening now. When will the same be true of the whole world? When will globalization mean that there's nothing to kill or die for?
Today, the answer seems pretty clear: not anytime soon. Now you have to wonder how far the backlash will push. Does the U.K. batten down its hatches? How does one respond to the terrorist threats of the 21st century? Where does one look for connection and common ground in the smoke of a bombed Tube station?
I have faith in London. The city has seen much, much worse. The Battle of Britain, for one thing. Years of IRA terrorism, for another. Maybe, in classic imperial manner, it will shrug off this latest affront and continue on its business as a great world capital. But right now, the London Underground is shut down, and the trains aren't running. And that's a silence that's haunting.