Just Above Sunset
July 31, 2005: Greetings from London: Host City for the 2012 Olympics and Suicide Bombers' Paradise!
Greetings from London: Host City for the 2012 Olympics and Suicide Bombers' Paradise!
This column, the first in what I hope will be a regular series of dispatches from the UK, is being written while live news pictures of police storming flats in West London play in the background. There are explosions. Men in flak jackets ducking down behind privet hedges. And guns. Lots of guns.
This scene has been played out on news feeds over and over again throughout the last three weeks, and yet it remains incredibly fresh, striking and - dare I type this, given everything that has recently happened? - exciting. It is like being in an episode of 24. It is, also, all very un-British.
For anyone who's been on holiday, or otherwise busy, or simply under a rock during the last month, here's what you've missed. (I hesitate to use the words "Previously on…" but they'd do just as well here.) The triumph of London's winning Olympic bid was blown away only 24 hours later by the terrorist attacks of July 7th. These attacks were then followed by a second, failed assault on the city's transport system exactly two weeks later.
The eyes of the world have indeed turned to London of late. In the event, though, most Londoners - rather admirably, given the circumstances - did their usual thing. They averted their gaze, kept their heads down, and simply got on with matters in hand.
What was amazing to me about July 7th - the instant, on-the-spot proof that the bombers would never entirely achieve their aims - was how quickly people began to make light of what was a chaotic, if not entirely bleak, situation. The bombs went off around nine in the morning; by two that afternoon, the first jokes were doing the rounds on e-mails and message boards ("Anybody want a one-day travel card?"); by five that evening, stranded by the enforced closing of Underground stations, most people simply headed to their nearest pub.
The keenly-awaited cricket test match between England and Australia at Lord's went uninterrupted by the July 21st attacks. An all-star athletics meet at Crystal Palace followed on the Friday night. And the Sunday saw the European premiere of the movie Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Leicester Square. Of course, in the weeks since, the loss of life has been more keenly felt. There have been special services, candlelit vigils, minute's silences. Funerals for those killed in the July 7th attacks have taken place. And traveling on the Underground has become a strange, precarious experience.
Yet the terrorist attacks on London, which achieved far less than their initiators would surely have wanted, have been set in context by events in Egypt last weekend. London was no Madrid. Nor was it an Omagh. Its carnage did not begin to rival that of the IRA's mainland bombing campaign during the 1970s. (Which, conducted by far savvier operators, specifically targeted pubs, striking fear into the heart of most Britons by attacking their most precious of sanctuaries.)
One of the consequences of any modern terror attack appears to be a need to instantly engage in a game of terrorism trading cards, to say "we suffered more/less than you, therefore we win." This is, perhaps, part of the healing process: to regroup, maybe even be seen to trivialise major traumas, in order to thumb one's nose at the individuals dead set on causing such chaos.
What struck me in the week following the failed bomb attacks of July 21st is that every nation gets the suicide bombers they deserve. America, the world leader in so many fields, attracts impassioned zealots who trained for years to be able to fly aeroplanes into the World Trade Center in an act of extraordinary, murderous self-sacrifice. Britain gets young men in rucksacks who repeatedly fail to blow up buses. (The fact forensics teams have subsequently found abandoned stashes of explosives suggest many of those young men simply couldn't be bothered to carry out their task, and cut and run while they still had the chance.)
Another take on the current situation came to me as I was sat on a train being diverted into central London. The diversion was due to a collapsed railway bridge on the outskirts of the city. The terrorists had banked on bringing London to a standstill by taking out its transport system; yet what possible effect can that have on a transport system that's already so prone to falling to pieces by itself? This is, after all, the country where "leaves on the line" serves as an acceptable excuse for cancelling trains. As it happens, the railway bridge blocking my progress had simply collapsed through old age and the strains of a nearby construction site.
So, it remains business as usual. As I write, special forces police have just brought three of the suspected bombers into custody. The guns are being put away. The flak jackets are being peeled off. Is it still too much to hope I might yet bump into Kim Bauer?
July 29, 2005
Copyright © 2005 – Mike McCahill
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
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