The Defiant Face of Britain

Caroline Organ 20 January 2008

In 2007 there was a turning point in the war on terror. On the 30th of June terrorists attempted to blow up Glasgow airport terminal one by driving a jeep laden with explosives into the glass building. John Smeaton was a baggage handler at Glasgow Airport, who acted instinctively, tackling the terrorist, selflessly placing himself in extreme peril.

Dubbed “the defiant face of Britain” by one internet blogger, Smeaton has won various accolades, including the exceptionally prestigious Queen’s Gallantry Medal and the first ever CNN Everyman Superhero Award (as well as becoming an over-night internet sensation).

Since the event, he has changed career, becoming the manager of a security firm. He has donated a large portion of the money pledged to him to charities, notably the

Erskine Hospital in Glasgow, which cares for war veterans.

One of the first things we talk about is how close to disaster things came that day. “The guys were amateurs, if they were professionals…I wouldn’t be here speaking to you now”, Smeaton says.

He was round the corner of the building when the terrorists tried to drive their Jeep through the doors of glass terminal. Thinking it was a car accident, he went to investigate “out of pure curiosity”, only to find a terrorist getting out of the bomb-filled car and attacking a nearby policeman.

He automatically went to the policeman’s aid, quickly subduing the struggling attacker. Two other baggage handlers were also involved and it was pure chance that reporters caught Smeaton on his way home after the event, making him the focus of the media attention. As he was keen to point out “It wasn’t just me that day…I don’t know how it came to me.”

It was not just his actions but his rallying cry to the British people that day that inspired cheering and clapping in pubs, as well as the pledging of 1400 pints to Smeaton.

“They can try and come to Britain and they can try and disrupt us any way they want but the British people have been under a lot worse things than this and we always stand proud.” These words captured the fighting spirit of the nation and made John Smeaton one of the year’s most unforgettable media heroes.

As one of the few people alive to have come face to face with a terrorist, Smeaton gave me of his perspective on the nature of terrorism and how it should be dealt with. He describes terrorists as “totally and utterly cowardly people…who cannot differentiate between good and bad.

“They were shocked when they saw people going for them…they thought, everyone’s going to run away from us”, he added. Smeaton praised Gordon Brown for his strength at this time when he had to deal with one emergency situation after another, describing him as about substance rather than style.

Smeaton was also quick to criticize the PM’s portrayal in the media, claiming “they never show him in his true light.” It is clear that he sees Brown’s strength as the only true way to combat terrorism “Are we going to live with it? Are we going to stand back and be frightened?..We bend when we need to bend but we stand when we need to stand.”

But when he talks about the level of preparation in Britain against terrorist attacks, his approval quickly vanishes. He is particularly scathing of the lack of adequate provision in Scotland. “There were only two airports that didn’t have armed police that day, Glasgow and Prestwick. In Glasgow there were only two police officers on call on the busiest day of the year”, he says.

On that day the illusion vanished that the only area of the United Kingdom vulnerable to terrorism is London. Terrorism suddenly became a force threatening all areas of the country, reaching into all sections of society. It penetrated professions as respected as medicine and infected areas of the United Kingdom that had once perceived themselves immune.

As Smeaton sees it, the foiling of the attempted terrorist attack on Glasgow airport that day was all the more poignant because of who tackled it. “It was the public, the people. It wasn’t the armed forces, it wasn’t just the police, it was the civilians.” Smeaton has repeatedly insisted that his actions were what civic duty required of him, slating David Cameron’s recent comments that our society has undergone a “moral collapse” in the process.

In direct contrast to Cameron’s repeated complaints that our society lacks moral fibre, Smeaton argues that “Morals are there…it’s just the media tells us those morals aren’t there. The media tells us to throw those morals out the window”. His argument turns more personal as he firmly asserts that “David Cameron is not a politician.”

As to whether the Tories are on course for a general election victory, his response was a definite “No Chance!..Never in Scotland!”

Aside from politics, Smeaton feels very strongly about the importance of the charity he pledged the vast sum of his money to, the Erskine Hospital. He is also passionate about the issues surrounding the treatment of war veterans.

He highlights the vast differences between the United Kingdom and the United States in attitudes towards the military by saying “This country doesn’t give any one of our soldiers support..in America they love their soldiers.” Where Americans admire and respect their soldiers for the difficult job that they do, we quibble over issues such as housing for the forces. He emphasizes in particular the negative role of the media in turning public opinion against the military. He is especially critical of the way in which ongoing conflicts are reported.

Smeaton is quick to brush off what he did that day as his duty. But the truth is, John Smeaton and his fellow baggage handlers went significantly beyond the call of duty that day, showing heroism that definitely wasn’t part of their job description.

And they arguably did the most noble thing any human being can do: they placed their lives on the line in defence of another. In the process they saved countless lives, and proved to the world that even the threat of international terrorism has not succeeded in loosening the British stiff upper lip.

Caroline Organ