LONDON - For visitors, London is alive with different languages, different ways of dress, different skin colors, different kinds of food. From the vibrant street scenes of East London’s Brick Lane to the posh neighborhoods of Chelsea and Kensington, you can’t miss that English is the second language for many. For energy and diversity, it feels like New York City on steroids.
As major cities confront terrorism, some wish London was not a mingling of people from all over the world, but how do these folks turn back the clock? More than a third of all Londoners are foreign-born.
We were on the way home from London in late May when the news came: 22 people killed in terrorist bombing in Manchester, the industrial city northwest of London.
Friends who knew we were in London sent oblique messages: Everything OK?
A few days earlier, we were part of the mid-morning throng crossing the Westminster Bridge, on the way from Big Ben to the London Eye. This was the same bridge where terrorists in a van killed three pedestrians in March.
From there, we walked along the south side of the Thames River to London Bridge and historic Borough Market. Twelve days after our visit, three terrorists in a van ran over pedestrians on London Bridge and then fled through the market, where they used knives to attack people who happened to be strolling one of the city’s most popular night-time scenes. Eight people were killed, and 48 were injured.
Londoners, no strangers to random terrorists attacks, seem determined not to surrender their way of life. (To emphasize the point, Prince Harry last week paid a visit to Borough Market.)
The British comedian John Oliver used his HBO show to make fun of how the U.S. news media characterized Londoners’ response to the latest attack.
“For the record,” he said, “in no way is Britain under siege. Is it upset? Yes! Is it pissed off Oh, you f------g bet it’s pissed off. But to say it’s ‘under siege’ and its people are ‘reeling’ is to imply it’s somehow weak enough to be brought to its knees by three monumental a- - - - - -s. And that, as an idea, is insulting.”
“The British people,” he added, “are never going to let terrorists change their way of life.”
More than 3 million Muslims live in the United Kingdom. Almost all of them go about their business. Some drive taxis, some manage banks, and some drive their Jaguars and Bentleys to shop at luxury stores in Knightsbridge.
And some go to prayer. Last week, a Cardiff man is alleged to have used a van to run over people outside a London mosque. One person was killed, and nine were injured. Witnesses said the man shouted, “Kill all Muslims!” Police and the British government described it as an act of terrorism.
No doubt attacks linked to Muslim residents will provoke new arguments about immigration, Britain’s changing population and Brexit, Britain’s plan to withdraw from the European Union.
But there are questions to be asked: What is the appropriate punishment for three million people who didn’t do anything wrong? How does a country round up that many people and deport them?
And what would Britain do if a significant portion of its workforce no longer existed? With an aging population of native-born people, the country already faces a shortage of workers. (On the day we left, a page-one story chronicled a nationwide shortage of nurses.)
This may explain why London voters opposed Brexit. As in the United States, the most outspoken opposition to immigration exists outside the big cities. (Of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., President Donald Trump, who promised to curb immigration and deport illegal immigrants, lost all of them.)
We live in a world defined by change. Transportation, manufacturing, technology — everything is different now. Developed countries with low birth rates have been obliged to look to immigrants to maintain an adequate workforce. Even so, unemployment rates remain low, and many jobs go unfilled.
In a neighborhood pub, a man who said he immigrated to Britain 15 years ago after living in Germany and Spain told us that native-born residents are gripped by a nostalgia for the way the world used to be. He said London is thriving because it has become the first great international city.
A business owner told us she worries about finding employees if Brexit sends immigrants home and denies admission to others. Three million people from European Union countries live in the U.K.
In developed countries, this becomes the challenge of our time. How do they maintain a robust economy while coping with the problems associated with immigration, including the antagonisms that sometimes lead a handful of people to violence?
Diligent police work will be essential. So, too, will be the watchfulness of neighbors who refuse to look the other way when they see evidence of a potential terrorist attack. All of us, of course, will need to be vigilant without succumbing to fear.
London remains one of the great cities of the world — in many ways, more prosperous and lively than it was prior to the arrival of immigrants.
People concerned about these random attacks will have to decide for themselves whether they believe it’s OK to travel there. We had a great time, and we’ll be going again.
Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.