Dispatch From London

Stoicism and the city.

Stranded Londoners wait it out

By early afternoon, London began to shut down. Normal business stopped. With the Underground closed, and all bus services in central London suspended, bosses realized they needed to give employees extra time to get home through the paralyzed city.

So, along with millions of Londoners, I walked out of the city center this afternoon. It was a very agreeable mob heading northwest toward Regents Park. People chatted on cell phones, fruitlessly tried to hail taxis, and solicited advice from the orange-jacketed attendants posted outside all the closed Tube stations. I dropped into a Starbucks for a pick-me-up (it was open, naturally): The manager was telling his baristas they would have to walk home, because he couldn’t find a cab for them. One giggled in disbelief. London’s enormous: She might well face a 10- or 15-mile trek tonight.

My route took me past 221b Baker Street and the statue of Sherlock Holmes. The great detective would have no problem with today’s “incidences,” as the British are calling the bombings. It seems an open-and-shut case. Already some repulsive new Bin Ladenist offshoot—the Secret Organisation Group of al-Qaida of Jihad Organisation in Europe—has claimed responsibility.

As I walked up Finchley Road to seek refuge at a friend’s house, unmarked police cars screamed past, sirens blaring. Police cars had been driving up the road all day, my friend David said, even though none of the attacks were out here. He speculated that the cops were heading to the heavily Islamic neighborhoods out by Wembley. It won’t surprise me if tomorrow’s papers recount roundups of Muslim men in northwest London. (As I write this, I hear another siren. And now another.)

I will be curious to see how Britain reacts to Islamic terrorism here. Britons have been relatively welcoming to Asian immigrants—the Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi communities here are huge and old—but if the attacks turn out to be homegrown, there may be a backlash. This is a much more Islamic nation than the United States. Many British Muslims here belong to distinct, unassimilated communities. As an American, I find aspects of that unsettling: There are lots of women clad in burqas and lots of men with long beards and skullcaps. (I don’t think I have ever seen men outfitted like that in the United States—I suspect the post-9/11 American suspicion—who’s that jihadist and what’s he doing at my shopping mall?—discourages even devout American Muslims from adopting such a look.)

The news has stopped getting worse at least. There were just four bombings, not six or eight or 10. The three Tube blasts have killed about 30 people and injured hundreds. The casualty reports from the lone bus bombing are still very sketchy and will probably turn out to be horrible. The bus was apparently packed with commuters who had been forced to evacuate the Underground. That bomb was so devastating that many if not most of those passengers were surely killed.

Still, the feeling of the city—at least of those who escaped tragedy—seemed muted, inconvenienced rather than heartbroken. Four years ago, every one of us who lived in Washington and New York had our lives changed by 9/11. We discovered we had a new enemy; we started a new war; we had the face of our cities changed forever. But Londoners already knew who their enemy was. Their cops and soldiers were already fighting this war. And their city looks exactly the same today as it did yesterday. London was not surprised today; it was put out.

At only one moment today was I ashamed to be an American. I ate lunch at a small Soho restaurant, a few blocks from the train explosion at Russell Square. I sat at an outside table, watching the flood of fleeing office workers and clerks walking home. The waiter was a young American. When he brought me the menu, he gestured to the sky, which was turning blue after a gray and drizzly morning. “Look,” he said, “it has become such a nice day.”