7/7: The British Reaction to Terrorist Bombings in London

By Scott E. Borrelli, Ed.D.
September 1, 2005



There couldn’t have been a more complicated moment for the bombs to go off in London on 7/7. That was the week that was.

The Live 8 benefit concert had just concluded the largest consciousness raising arts activity in history, delivering a powerful message to the G-8 members to “make poverty history” in Africa.

The finale of Wimbledon meant that families everywhere were liberated from their “tellys” after being captivated by a sobering week of tennis in which no Brit won. Next, Londoners were dancing in Trafalgar Square in a colossal celebration having beaten Paris (their arch rival) to host the Olympics in 2012.

Suddenly, all of these outstanding events were dimmed by the slaughter of more than 50 innocent people in the north, south, east and west of London (symbolizing the cross). On three trains and one bus, as people were on their way to work trying to earn an honest living in Europe’s most expensive city, London’s worst terrorist attack had become an unbearable reality.

Two weeks to the day later, another set of copycat bombers attempted to annihilate Londoners, perverting religious zeal into hate. Although their bombs failed, they succeeded in compounding the dread we were already burdened with.

As an American psychologist living and working in London, I took special interest in how the British people would respond to these horrific events, given their reputation for keeping a “stiff upper lip.”

As expected, a firm resolve to “get on with it” pervaded the city, and rather than face the city’s congestion charges (the equivalent of about $15 just to drive your car into the city, plus $50 for parking per day), people were taking the public transport again, and life was quickly brought back to “normal.”

Rapidly organized solidarity demonstrations emphasized the value of London’s extensive multi-cultural society, where nearly 200 languages are spoken. Being “British” in London is a complex tag.

Placards and newspapers eagerly quoted Mayor Ken: “London Stands United.” As the individuals who perished under the rage of wayward religious zealots were slowly identified, the world came face-to-face with just how dangerous the world had become.

Fortunately, tears were flowing more freely, although maybe not to the degree they did in America after 9/11, or perhaps in Spain after 3/11. The British have changed since the death of Princess Diana six years ago, when it seems that the nation was released to publicly express the horror associated with the tragic death of their “queen of hearts.” Diana had given the British people permission to feel and still be British.

The London “blitz” in WWII, followed by 30 years of harassment from the IRA, necessarily toughened several generations of Londoners. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom continues to pride itself with some of the most relaxed immigration policies anywhere.

Tolerance for differences is openly supported by the government here, much more so than in America. However, recent events, especially 9/11, are challenging these positions. But rather than only reacting with further restriction and control (like the Americans), Londoners are seeing the value of advancing cultural sensitivity beyond tolerance and toward genuine acceptance – through education, town meetings and open government support for diverse life styles. Additionally, recent events have taught Londoners to have a broader public expression.

The need for counseling and therapy post-trauma has become well accepted by the UK government, communities and health services. No one can safely ignore the impact of terror on personal and family lives and the British more openly express empathy toward those affected, while the stigma for reaching out to the professionals for help is significantly reduced.

This new British character combines the best of both worlds: the recognition that collective mourning can expedite the “getting on with it.”

As a trauma specialist and a Londoner, I am moved by the complexity of the British response and the maturity of the British spirit in times of recent trouble. This is no knee-jerk or divisive reaction to terrorism here, accusations sometimes leveled at the current American responses.

Rather, there is an attempt to be inclusive, heartfelt and constructive. Cousins to the end, the Americans and the British still have a great deal to learn from each other and we are closer to each other than ever before. CE

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Scott E. Borrelli, Ed.D., is a licensed and board certified clinical and counseling psychologist in America, originally from Boston, Mass. He is also a chartered psychologist in the United Kingdom where he has been practicing for the past 10 years. He specializes in integrative therapies, medical psychology and trauma interventions and is an accredited EMDR practitioner and consultant. He is chief editor of The EMDR Practitioner, the official journal of the European EMDR Association: www.emdr-practitioner.net. He is collegiate professor of counseling psychology with The University of Maryland, European Division, and recently published a chapter on domestic violence in Italy: International Perspectives on Family Violence and Abuse: A Cognitive-Ecological Approach (K. Malley-Morroson, Ed.).

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