OPINION: I've lived with the threat of terror in London
IF THE recent attack in Westminster was meant to spread panic and alarm in London, the perpetrators need to do some homework on the character of the city's residents.
Without trivialising the horrific nature of the attack, anyone who lived in the UK in the 1970s and '80s learned all about living with terrorism, thanks primarily to the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
In June 1974, the IRA exploded a bomb at the British Parliament, injuring 11.
Later that year, 21 were killed in a bombing at a Birmingham pub.
In 1984 then-PM Margaret Thatcher was nearly assassinated in Brighton, with five others killed.
Many more attacks took place. Random bombings were rife.
In total the IRA killed more than 120 people in England during "the Troubles" of 1969-1998.
During these years, anything left unattended in a public place was considered suspicious and that became a way of life.
Few people avoided direct or indirect experience of that life and you always had to remain alert to any possibility.
But the Londoners, and the Brits in general, remained stoic and resolute in the face of the onslaught.
Call it a national post-Blitz culture, the experience of which is seared into hearts and minds, even for those who were not born in the war years.
In the late '70s, I was managing a shopfront branch of a large employment agency near Marble Arch, in London's West End.
One weekend, media reported numerous explosive devices were put through letter-slots on doors of similar agencies; some detonating, some not, as some general harassment attempt.
The following Monday, I arrived at the office to find a staff member, Wendy, had arrived early to prepare a teenage girl for an early interview at a client's offices.
She had gone to that interview and I commented on Wendy's shiny new briefcase, nestled against the side of her desk.
She looked down. "Er ... that's not mine," she said.
And she could not recall the young interviewee entering the office with one.
A moment of stunned silence, then high-speed logical thought processing took over.
The probability was the interviewee owned the brand-new, if inexpensive, briefcase and for some unfathomable reason left it in the office.
But why own a flash, professional interview accessory and not take it to an interview?
It made no sense.
Maybe we could try to contact her at the company - but it was a huge engineering firm's head office and the switchboard was not yet manned in these early hours. (And this was years before mobile phones).
Why would potential terrorists put devices through letter-boxes, yet somehow install a briefcase in our not-particularly-secure offices?
All these thoughts crammed our minds in what seemed like nano-seconds. But in the end, with no clear answer, one cannot take chances with people's lives.
So I rang my regional boss, quickly explaining the situation, and we agreed she would call the police and I would empty the office of staff.
Fifteen minutes later the key city trunk route of Edgware Rd was cut off by police. Military bomb squad Land Rovers appeared and started evacuating neighbouring shopfronts and upper residences. City traffic chaos ensued for the next four hours.
We later hosted numerous police and army personnel for morning tea in the office, while looking at the unfortunate young jobseeker's broken briefcase, which had been gingerly teased open by bomb squaddies to reveal nothing more than a CV copy and a sandwich.
The hugely apologetic young woman later arrived to learn a hard, expensive lesson about leaving unattended items.
But at least she got the job and could afford another briefcase.
Just another day in London during the 1970s.
Some years later, that same lesson had clearly been lost on me.
Returning to the UK in 1992, I jumped aboard the fully-booked London-Edinburgh train from King's Cross, dumping my Australia-tagged suitcase in a rack behind four short-haired young men sitting in a four-seat compartment, and headed for the dining car and bar, as you do.
Two minutes later, my shoulder was tapped as I stood in the queue.
"Excuse me, mate, would you mind coming back with me and removing your suitcase?" one of the four fellows said.
Suddenly realising my mistake, I sheepishly walked back with him as I realised they were military blokes and dropping a suitcase next to them, then nonchalantly walking off, was a seriously good way to shorten my time here on Earth.
So if you're headed toward Blighty in the near future, you won't find people cowed and subdued by the efforts of a handful of misguided zealots.
They've had much worse.
But you'll have a much better time if you think about the consequences of your actions as you go about your business.
Alan Lander is a journalist with News Regional Media.