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.”
At first even the tabloids got with the program. A young Bengali woman, Shahara Akther Islam, missing since Thursday, quickly became London’s heartbreaking poster girl. On the BBC news her white-bearded grandfather, unable to speak, curved his arms tenderly around the empty air to show how he used to hold her. But even before the bombers had been identified, there were attacks on Muslims and Asian businesses; the Muslim Council of Britain received 30,000 hate e-mails in the early period after the bombings. Afterward the Daily Telegraph had had enough of diversity, thundering, “There can be no ‘communities’–plural–when Britain is attacked, only a nation.” Both the Telegraph and the Sun called for Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan, due to speak in London at the invitation of the metropolitan police, to be barred from entering the country.
The aftershock has also made it even more difficult to talk about Iraq without appearing to excuse or explain away the murders, though the war was opposed by most Londoners and indeed, vociferously, by Livingstone. But until Blair acknowledges the part his invasion played in the attack on London, no multicultural rhetoric, no tea parties with imams, nothing his government does will heal the rifts opened in Britain by the “war on terror,” let alone begin to end it. Tony Blair and José Maria Aznar were head boys in Bush’s coalition of the willing; now all three countries share a common grief. Even those who refuse to connect the suffering of London’s civilians with the agony of Baghdad must see that Iraq has been a gift, ideologically and practically, to the old men who prime young men to blow themselves up.
The worst possible–and yet most likely–outcome of the London bombings would be further isolation of Europe’s Muslim communities, producing more everyday misery, more fertile ground for fantasies of Islamic caliphates, more racism and more repressive security legislation.
But the shock may also be salutary. Most Muslims have always refused the false dichotomies of the “war on terror,” privately opposing both the extremism flickering in their communities and the foreign policies that feed its flames. More are beginning to speak out. Dilpazier Aslam, a trainee at the Guardian, described his generation’s resentment of their elders’ “don’t rock the boat” immigrant mentality and disengagement from politics. Ending that disenfranchisement is a job for all of us.
Mourning hasn’t even really begun here. As we write, they are still bringing the dead up from beneath King’s Cross; most of them have not yet been identified. For the families of the dead and maimed, there will be no going back. And for the rest? Last week Londoners felt like victims–or targets. This week we are reeling at the tasks ahead. Before London’s scars can truly heal, we will have to acknowledge, and mourn, the infinitely larger wound inflicted on Iraq, and the old wounds still festering inside our own society.