Letter from Prague
Given the events of the past few days, the subject of this Letter from Prague should come as a surprise to no-one. Yes, I am going to talk about the attacks by the US and Great Britain on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. Well, more to the point, the Czech reaction to these attacks. Not the reactions of the politicians, but how ordinary people seem to dealing with the situation. This cannot, of course, compare to the suffer of innocent people, either in New York, Washington or those inevitably caught in the crossfire in Afghanistan. But life has changed here. In some ways, not so visibly, but in other ways, life has changed here, just as it has in many countries.
One of the most prominent changes has been in the centre of Prague, at the top of Wenceslas Square, where the Radio Free Europe building is located. As an American funded organisation, and one that broadcasts to countries such as Iraq, it is, and has been, a natural target for bomb threats. The building is now surrounded by concrete barriers, several armoured cars and heavily armed Czech soldiers and police officers. The connecting road that runs between the two directions of the city's main highway is right beside the Radio Free Europe building, and has been completely closed off to traffic. This has caused chaos and even longer traffic jams than usual in the centre of Prague.
There are also tighter security measures at the Czech Republic's airports and concerns are rife over the threat of biological warfare. Gas masks are selling out and the government has announced measures to deal with a possible attack of this sort. Just how realistic a threat is posed to the Czech Republic is uncertain. The government says it is a low risk country, while others describe the situation as a lottery, saying that there is no way of ruling out the possibility of an attack. And again, although the government has declared the risk to be minimal, it has also given the Defence Ministry the power to shoot down any civilian planes that are hijacked over Czech airspace. A chilling thought, but the world has changed.
What is most remarkable though is the change in mood in the past four and a half weeks. The initial response after the horrible attacks on the USA was one of shock and anger. After all, it is truly hard to imagine the malevolence and planning that had to go into attacks like that, whoever they are aimed at. People I spoke to on the streets described the attackers as animals, and said that there should be revenge, that on no account should this go unpunished. A full eighty percent of Czechs asked as part of an opinion poll said that there should be military action against those deemed responsible, and that the Czechs should take part.
That feeling has now mellowed. Yes, people still say, such an attack is to be expected after the events of September 11th, but what about the consequences? As I said, there has been a run on gas masks, and quite a few people have cut short travel plans abroad. People seem almost resigned to what is going on, but at the same time nervous, as it seems there is no limit to the lengths that those responsible for the attacks in the USA will go to. As one commentator told me this week, if someone is willing to lay down their own lives in an attack, then there is very little that can prevent them strapping explosives or some sort of biological weapon to themselves and then setting it off in a crowded area. Low risk or no, it is still all just a lottery he said, and no-one wants to holding the winning ticket. Many worried Czechs are hoping that it won't be them.