When New York was attacked by terrorists in 2001 the mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, told New Yorkers to stay calm, do business as usual, take the kids to the park and go see a show. In other words show that the city was bigger than the terror. Show that murder is murder, not war. It is defeated by normalcy not panic.
This morning's horrific explosions in London can be deplored and the bereaved consoled as best we can. But the terrorism itself should be greeted as Guiliani decreed. New Yorkers, it would be fair to say, did not take their mayor's advice. So horrific was the Twin Towers collapse and so traumatic to a city that had never experienced terrorism on this scale that New York did what its mayor most feared. Citizens did change their behaviour, their spending patterns, their lives at the bidding of terror. This was a mistake, if an understandable one. For years afterwards New York's economy and peace of mind paid the price.
London learned Guiliani's message from the late-1970s to the early-1990s. It did so at the hands of the IRA, perhaps a more recognizable and therefore less terrible enemy than Osama bin Laden. But over those years attacks continued almost by the month. People died by the score, shoppers, soldiers, City workers, tourists, army horses. In 1991 a missile landed on Downing Street itself.
At the time London's response surprised many visitors. It was on of steely equanimity. Londoners became used to sealed litter bins, cordoned streets, random searches. Somehow it seemed that the experience of living through the Blitz lingered on in the urban psyche, despite few Londoners any longer having memory of it. The motto remained that, however many bombs exploded, London could take it. It would not concede what the IRA most wanted, the victory of panic. It would not press its politicians to behave other than as they were doing anyway. Violence was not an aid to policy.
The message must be the same today. The intention of those responsible for this morning's outrages was presumably to hit London during the G8 and in the aftermath of yesterday's Olympics exhilaration, though I assume more the former than the latter. Despite my skepticism over the Olympics, I stood with thousands in Trafalgar Square yesterday and found myself cheering with the crowd. London had entered a contest it did not need to win, but it had won. Its leaders had fought hard and deserved congratulations.
What has happened is irrelevant to the Olympics, even if it is intended to be so. An occasion of happiness had merely been turned into an occasion of misery. If the purpose is to punish Britain for participating in the Iraq war, to that too it is an irrelevance. There is no conceivable way such acts can be permitted to force democratic countries to alter policy. It would be shocking if they did.
Western security policy since 9/11 has often been portrayed as an overreaction. Much of it - at buildings, airports and immigration points - has seemed merely a costly and time-wasting gesture. Huge resources have been devoted to tracking down terrorist cells. British freedoms have been sacrificed in the cause. Probably innocent people are in prison without trial. Yet still the bomber gets through.
Today is therefore a reminder of two things. The first is that no security can ever protect a big city completely. It could not do so during the prolonged IRA campaign, despite the most sophisticated espionage and policing. It cannot do so now. British security is good. London's police are regarded as first-class in counter-terrorism, as the Met's Chief Constable, Sir Ian Blair, had occasion to mention on the radio only this morning.
The fact is that all cities are open, complex and vulnerable. Their inner workings, such as the Underground, are as easy to attack as are their public spaces. Vigilance can only go so far before tipping into panic and a siege mentality, which is admitting defeat. The risks people take living in cities are unavoidable (and no worse than living in the country). The risk of a terrorist bomb remains tiny, however horrific the occasion.
But that in itself is a reminder of something else. Absolutely nothing is achieved by responding to such terrorism in the way the terrorist most wants, by behaving differently. The terrorist most wants people to stop using the Tube. The terrorist wants tourists to stay away from the central area. The terrorist wants Londoners to remain at home, stop working, haul their children out of school. The terrorist wants shops and theatres to suffer, the Stock Market to crash, the Olympic spirit to fade. The terrorist wants everyone to feel perpetually terrorized, to look askance at every Arab faces and dress, to overreact, cut and run for cover from the world.
That is precisely why today's outrage should in the literal sense of the word be ignored. It should be treated as an accident in London's history, the random act of madmen. We should do as Guiliani said after 9/11. We should go about our business, take the kids to the park, see a show and wave defiance to the world. London is not to be terrified by anyone.