LONDON — London woke up Friday to the “day after” of what has been called the worst assault on British soil since World War II.
As the British cope with the tragedy of Thursday's terror attacks, they will also have to confront what the attack means going forward and how it will or will not affect their daily lives.
NBC News Correspondent Martin Fletcher, based in Israel, has spent years living through and reporting on terrorist attacks.
In an interview with MSNBC.com, he talks about the differences he sees in the British and Israeli responses to terror.
Can you describe the mood in London?
The population of London is somewhere around seven million, so to generalize is totally impossible. But what I’ve noticed from the media coverage is how proud the British are of their stiff upper lip.
Everyone is congratulating themselves about how everyone is carrying on, and on how life continues as normal. Saying things like, “We are not going to let the terrorists change our way of life,” and all these kinds of proud statements. [They're] comparing London today to the Blitz and saying that nothing can phase London.
What you see in the streets is a completely routine scene. I’m sitting now in a café just down the street from Russell Square, where there are still bodies down inside the tube that have not yet been taken out. But here where I’m sitting, you wouldn’t know that anything was happening there. Everything seems completely normal.
That’s the way it normally is in Israel or anywhere else. Within, say, half an hour of a bomb happening, in Israel anyway, the streets have been cleaned up and people continue to travel again.
One thing that is definitely different here is that there are far fewer people and far less traffic than normal because so many people have been told to stay out of the center of town if they don’t need to come here.
Unfortunately, you have an inordinate amount of experience with terrorist attacks from your experience living and reporting in Israel. How is the British reaction to the terror attacks similar or different from the reaction in Israel?
I’d say it’s very similar, to be honest. As I say, you can’t see a big difference. Presumably, there is more awareness of security. At the British Museum they were searching people’s bags, but I don’t know if they do that normally or not.
But at most places here, it is wide open to terrorism. There is no attempt to search people’s bags as they go into busy shopping malls or stations or buses. The awareness of the dangers of terrorism here — in practical terms of what they are actually doing about it — is close to zero. London proudly says that they have more surveillance cameras than any other city in the world. Apart from that, though, there is really no way here to stop a terrorist from attacking.
Whereas in Israel, a bag that has been left by itself in the street for more than two minutes, someone will report that bag to the police, and then the bomb squad will come and close off the area and investigate the bag and maybe blow it up. And all of that happens within minutes, literally within minutes. Whereas here, it is just wide open.
How is the Israeli culture of awareness different from that in London?
The most effective weapon against terrorism is simply public awareness and education about what constitutes a danger. In Israel, people live with that daily. Here, no one lives with that for a moment.
I can’t imagine that anyone here, before Thursday, was thinking about bomb attacks. And it’s probably the same in New York.
Right after 9/11, all the reports were, “Oh, now Americans are going to have to get used to a different way of life.” They started making comparisons to Israelis, saying they are going to have to start showing their bags more frequently, etc.
But, today in New York, is anyone overly concerned about terrorism? Of course not, no one’s bags get checked. Whereas, in Israel, they’ve maintained that vigilance daily, for many years.
In New York it lasted a few weeks, maybe. And in London, even today — the day after the bombing, you don’t see any kind of extra security, that’s noticeable anyway.
There is always the question, “Will we have to change our way of life?” That is the critical question. And the fact is, yeah, Israelis did change their way of life. And that’s how they live daily and it helps.
That’s the most important weapon against terrorism – that public awareness. That does not exist in London and probably not in the United States, too. The problem is, you learn that the hard way.
How will some of London’s precautionary measures — like closed circuit television cameras throughout the city — help in the investigation of the attack?
Yes, the critical thing in the investigation is the closed circuit TVs. There are about 8,000 of them in town, and about 2,000 of those closed circuit TVs monitor the tube or subway network.
The thing is that that they are useful only after the attack; to look at the old tapes and see what looked suspicious in hindsight.
The question is: Are they being monitored all the time properly, in such a way that they can prevent an attack?
Obviously, the answer is, no. Because you had four attacks here and no one had the slightest idea anything was happening.
How do you monitor tens of thousands of people pouring into the tube station every hour? You can’t, at least not with the technology that they have.
So, the fact that they have all of these closed circuit TVs, it's helpful afterwards, but it’s extremely unlikely that it will help prevent an attack. What are you going to look for, suspicious behavior among tens of thousands of people, all over London, at the same time? But it is very useful afterwards as part of the investigation of the crime scene.
The question then becomes, how many of those cameras were actually rolling? How many had tapes in them?
Every time this happens, it turns out that half of the cameras aren’t working. It will be interesting to see what the results of this investigation are.
Finally, how is the British resolve and so-called ‘stiff upper lip’ helping people carry on?
At the moment, we know that 50 people were killed, but there will probably be more and several hundred were wounded. But for the time being, it’s a one-off thing.
They are calling this the worst carnage or the worst loss of life in London since the Second World War. So that tells you something about how peaceful life has been here for so long.
When you ask about how people are carrying on, I think most people aren’t even thinking about it. It happened. There is no sense whatsoever that anyone is worried or looking suspiciously about. I think life seems completely normal, except there are fewer people around. There is much less traffic.
A lot of people were told not to come to work and to stay out of the city center if possible. Since it’s a Friday anyway, I’m sure a lot of people figured, why bother, I’ll make it a long weekend.
Martin Fletcher is the NBC News Tel Aviv Bureau Chief and lead correspondent. He is on assignment in London to cover the terror attacks. You can see more of his reporting on the similarities and differences between British and Israeli reaction to terrorism on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams tonight.