Weekend bombings in Britain are overshadowed by explosion in New York Trade Center blast mesmerizes Britons

March 01, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- There were two bomb attacks in Britain over the weekend, one against a gas depot in Warrington near Liverpool, the other near a crowded market in north London. Yet the preoccupation with the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York is much greater here.

Why? Is it because the assault in Manhattan was so much more spectacular? Bloodier? Five people died from the effects of the explosion in New York, and more than 1,000 were injured.

Or is it because the event in New York had the quality of novelty? In Britain it was big news that terrorism had come to America in such a spectacular way.

Bombs in London are not all that exceptional. They don't go off every day, but frequently enough that they form part of the context in which everybody lives.

Last year, 40 terrorist incidents -- most of them bombings -- were recorded, the Home Office said. Six people died.

Most such attacks are the work of the Irish Republican Army, which claimed responsibility for the bombings Friday and Saturday.

Explosions here only occasionally take lives. Usually they are not meant to. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, and during the same period in 1991, many bombs and incendiary devices were planted in shops and department stores throughout London and in other cities, usually set to detonate when the shops were closed.

The perpetrators perhaps have decided against trying to engender an atmosphere of fear, settling for creating widespread inconvenience and disruption of commerce.

The public's overt response is best described as one of annoyance, or a studied indifference. Andrew Graham-Yool, editor of the human rights magazine Index on Censorship, has lived in more than one city besieged by terrorists. To him, the indifference is peculiar. He sees it as a self-deception.

"This country is accustomed to war," he says. "It is one of the things the English do well. Today it is living in a state of war but won't acknowledge it. The sealing of manhole covers during the Lord Mayor's parade, the perpetual evacuations of the Underground stations, all that.

"Yet this state of war won't be acknowledged because the enemy is the Irish and the English regard the Irish as inferior and can't acknowledge them as a valid enemy."

Even though people decline to show any panic toward the bombs, they do not make light of them. And though the very frequency of explosive attacks has made people more tolerable, the experience of living with them has planted a profound and general apprehension.

This apprehension rarely surfaces enough to distract people much from their day-to-day routines. But now and then, from deep down, an intimation boils up of terrible experiences to come.

The two weekend explosions in Britain were serious and of the sort to agitate that reservoir of fear. The bomb near the Camden Town market on Saturday sent 18 people to the hospital, including two children.

The three bombs in Warrington on Friday, had they done what the perpetrators intended, would have ignited a fireball sufficient to annihilate much of a nearby neighborhood.

Both incidents held the promise of a deadly switch in strategy for the IRA, one that would include the targeting of industrial sites and the public. In recent years those kinds of all-out, blood-soaked attacks have been reserved for Northern Ireland, or for those the IRA classified as military targets on the mainland -- soldiers, high politicians and so forth.

Police spokesman Cmdr. Bernard Luckhurst said the warning police had received by a man with an Irish accent announced the Camden Town bomb was about a quarter-mile from the place it went off, which meant police were moving people away from a secure area and in some cases toward danger.

The bomb, he said, was "clearly designed to injure as many people as possible. . ."

Said Paul Beaver, the publisher of Jane's Defense Weekly: "The only really effective weapon against such a campaign is intelligence and that old faithful, vigilance."

These have been the mainstays of the British public's defense of itself during all the years of the IRA's unremitting war against them: intelligence gathering, sometimes successful, sometimes not, by the agencies deployed against the IRA (Scotland Yard and now MI5); and vigilance by the great majority of the public.

Unceasing vigilance is encouraged on every side. At airports, train stations, even in certain department stores, messages periodically come over speaker systems -- in a variety of languages -- warning people not to leave their bags unattended, that such bags will be destroyed.

Signs on the Underground urge passengers to watch for "suspicious parcels," bags or suitcases left unattended. When one is spotted, say on a station platform, the station is evacuated, trains are halted and backed up so the effect is felt all along the line, by hundreds of thousands of people.

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