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Liquid-Bomb Plotters Sentenced to Life: Remembering the 9/11 That Wasn't

5 years ago
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A high court judge in the U.K. on Monday sentenced three men to life in prison for plotting to blow up at least seven transatlantic planes in August 2006. According to the judge, it was "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven in this jurisdiction," intended to result in a "massive loss of life."

The architects of the bombing hoped to rival the attacks of Sept. 11 in scope and magnitude. The plan was to insert liquid explosives into empty bottles of sports drinks such as Lucozade and Oasis, and then smuggle those on board in hand-carried luggage. But the attack never came off. The would-be terrorists were rounded up by police and arrested in an early morning raid on Aug. 10, 2006, two days before the attack was to occur.

As it happened, my family moved to London from Chicago on Aug. 8, 2006, touching down at Heathrow midday on the 9th. We traveled with what now seems like an extravagant number of carry-on items, stuffing all manner of pots, pans and "Star Wars" toys into our young children's backpacks so we could get by until the rest of our boxes arrived. It was a bit like a "Beverly Hillbillies" episode gone awry.

We were still trapped in that bleary-eyed, jet-lagged, other-worldly experience that is an overseas move when we rolled into our real estate agent's office the next morning to pick up our keys. We didn't understand why the entire staff -- boss included -- was gathered around a computer monitor.

"Haven't you heard?" one guy asked, gazing up at us blankly as if he'd temporarily forgotten that his job was renting flats.

No, we hadn't heard. But we soon did.

It felt like such a near miss. Even though the planes would have been heading out of Heathrow, departing two days later, etc. etc., to learn that we'd been so close in space and time to such a horrific act was terrifying. The 9/11 attacks were still fresh enough in our minds to recall stories from friends of friends who -- but for a fluke -- didn't go to work that day at the Twin Towers.

Or did.

It was a strange introduction to our new home country. And a deeply unnerving one. Right before I moved, I'd read a cover story in the New York Times Magazine titled "After Londonistan." It was all about the "home-grown" terrorism taking root in the U.K. and the difficulties British police were having infiltrating nascent terrorist networks. Even though I would be moving to London in a matter of weeks, at that point it still felt like someone else's problem.

Not anymore. Once the liquid-bomb plot was revealed, the narrative laid out in that article became part of my new reality.

In the years since, terrorist threats of all different kinds have ebbed and flowed in the U.K. and Europe. But they haven't gone away. There was the 2007 attack on Glasgow airport that pushed the security alert to "critical." Just this summer, a series of bombs exploded on the Spanish island of Majorca, killing two people. They were attributed to the Basque separatist ETA movement. Late last week, the Real IRA took responsibility for a series of bomb explosions in Northern Ireland. And even as the news here tells us that -- Osama bin Laden tapes notwithstanding -- al-Qaeda is weakening, there's still a palpable shudder in the Tube every time a train stops or a station closes for "security reasons."

Moreover, as Linda reminded us in her eloquent post remembering 9/11 last week, there are lots of other, less tangible ripple effects from terrorist attacks, real or intended.

I'm thinking of the chatty, affable South Asian taxi driver I met on a ride home from Heathrow six months ago, who cheerfully told me that the 9/11 attacks had been orchestrated by the Bush administration. Didn't I know? How to convince him in less than 30 minutes to rethink a worldview that had been evolving for 30 years?

I'm also thinking of the often violent protests that have raged through areas like East London and Birmingham in recent months as far-right groups such as the English Defense League wage an assault on Islam in predominantly Muslim neighborhoods.

And, of course, on a more mundane level, my family has never again traveled with the amount of carry-on luggage that we brought to London that very first time. In a procedure directly attributable to the failed liquid-bomb attacks, every single time we board an airplane, I am now routinely asked about the Benadryl I carry in my handbag to protect against my son's food allergies. Sometimes I have to pour half the bottle out in order to meet the new liquid travel restrictions.

When I first moved here, I resented that.

Now I don't think twice about it.

I guess I live here now.

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