On July 7 the war came home to Britain. For those of us lucky enough not to be in central London when the bombs went off, the horror has taken a while to bloom. Rescue workers clambering over pieces of the dead in the tunnels under King’s Cross; the tremulous present tense in the descriptions of the missing; our queasy fascination with eyewitness accounts filling the papers–these things uncover a darkness we are adept at denying.
In the immediate aftermath of the bombings, life seemed to return to normal with defiant and comforting speed. The Jubilee Line at 8:50 on Friday morning–exactly twenty-four hours after the first bomb went off underground–was jammed with commuters. We were all probably a little jumpy, but the carriage was too crowded, with too many different kinds of people, to carry out any kind of risk assessment. The buses on Oxford Street were also back on schedule, though the signs advertising summer sales beckoned to eerily empty streets. E-mails from friends in the States seemed to assume that this was London’s September 11, with similarly traumatic effects. It didn’t feel like that. These attacks didn’t come out of the blue; after the events of the past four years, there is no blue for them to come from anymore. No one here was asking “Why us?”
Now, however, the question prompted by the revelation that the explosions were the work of British-born suicide bombers is: “Why them?” We knew something like this was going to happen, but most of us assumed that when it did the culprits–like the attackers in Manhattan and Madrid–would be foreigners. Like an aftershock, the news that the attackers were homegrown, cricket-loving Muslim lads from Leeds may yet do more damage than the initial attacks.
For the past two years this country has been torn apart by the war in Iraq and the deep distrust engendered by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s deceptions. When the bombs went off, those wounds had barely been papered over by the prospect of our leaders trying to do the right thing in Africa; by the feel-good substitute for politics that was Live 8; by London’s surprise win over Paris in the Olympics bid. Now, the fissures exposed in British society suddenly seem much deeper, much more jagged, than we dared to think.
For the first few days the bombs pulled Britain together. As London’s Mayor, Ken Livingstone, put it, “This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful…. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old.” Against the poisonous rhetoric blowing across the Atlantic, many here have been working to strengthen the links between communities, knowing that’s the best defense against terrorists and racists alike. The government understands this too. After the attacks Blair tried immediately to reassure Britain’s 1.6 million Muslims, though he undermined his good intentions with an unfortunate choice of pronoun: “The vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims…abhor this act of terrorism every bit as much as we do.”