This morning’s front-page headline read “One Sweet Word: London.” We rolled our eyes at the festival of Olympic self-congratulation. I took our youngest to school, drove to a friend’s house to discuss a project; Woman’s Hour was on the radio as usual. “Have you come from the chaos?” my friend asked. “Apparently there’s been some kind of power cut; none of the tubes are running.”
We joked about the Olympics and London Transport’s incompetence; we joked about the G-8 protesters. That’s how numbed we were to the threat of terrorism, after years of warnings seemingly timed to dampen dissent over Iraq or pave the way for some new assault on civil liberties. It was when we realized that our mobile phones weren’t working and we couldn’t get on the net that we turned on the TV.
It’s very easy to disrupt a city. We’re all nodes now in the information network; deprive us of access to instant news or to our loved ones on the end of a phone and fear sets in quite fast. At 10:45 the BBC still didn’t know exactly what had happened–how many explosions, when or even where. They played a clip of a doctor in orange overalls putting her backpack on over and over again. In between there were shots of familiar streets full of police tape and dazed passers-by. There were the eyewitness accounts, familiar now from so many attacks–the enormous bang, the smoke, the shattered glass, the blood, the mangled limbs. The camera lingered on the back of an ambulance as a stretcher was wheeled out, a paramedic pounding on the chest of a blackened man. We didn’t see that again; it was the sort of footage that’s preceded by a warning–“Some viewers may find these images disturbing”–when it’s broadcast from a war zone on the evening news. At noon Tony Blair came on from the G-8 summit. He looked shattered and paused a long time between phrases; he seemed, for the first time in a long time, sincere. He let grief and shock speak for themselves, not rushing to cover them with outrage and resolve. My friend said, “Does this mean I’ll have to hate him less?”
It’s not yet clear whether we’ll hate Blair less or blame him more for putting us at greater risk by following Bush to Iraq. After the Live 8 concert last weekend and the Olympic bid’s success, London was in a carnival mood. The bombs could not have been better timed to whiplash our emotions; their careful coordination seemed designed to maximize fear, not casualties. But so far there’s no sign of demonstrations in the rain à la Madrid. Nor is this Britain’s 9/11. It hasn’t come out of the blue–there is no blue for it to come from anymore. It feels more like the other shoe dropping, which brings a kind of relief: Though this was terrible and there may be more to come, everyone knows it could have been much worse. After the lies that took us into war and their long-drawn-out exposure, it won’t be easy for Blair to use the attacks to whip up another crusade–though they will probably speed the government’s identity-card legislation. It’s a cliché, but the British really are a pretty stoic lot. We’ve coped with bombs before, though the IRA generally issued warnings and set them off one at a time. With any luck we’ll meet this with cool heads and sharp eyes–on people carrying suspicious bags, but also on our leaders.