‘Weeping for everything’

As the Queen's Guard played the American national anthem to honour the victims of the attack on America, there was little sense of 'collective grief' - just sad, confused individuals wanting to 'do something, anything'.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Hundreds of people clambered at Buckingham Palace gates to catch a glimpse of the men in red, while mounted coppers shouted at us to ‘form an orderly line’. But this was no ordinary changing of the guard.

For the first time in history, the Queen’s Guard led with the American national anthem rather than the British, and tourists clutched American flags and flowers as well as camcorders and Harrods bags.

‘We’re thousands of miles from home’, said Emmet from New Jersey, ‘and we have no way of getting back. We want to pay our respects to the people of New York and Washington as best we can’. As the Queen’s Guard launched into The Star Spangled Banner, Emmet’s wife started to cry, while his daughter caught the whole thing on film. ‘We’re grateful to the Queen and the British people for putting this thing on’, she said.

A TV reporter nodded towards Emmet’s wife. ‘Look, she’s crying’, he told his cameraman, ‘can you get that?’. The cameraman had a better idea: ‘Over there a woman is crying and holding the flag.’ ‘Go, go, go’, said the reporter. By the time I got back to the spiked office, pictures of the weeping woman with the American flag were already on news websites, under the headline ‘UK in mourning’.

But this wasn’t mourning in any traditional sense. Some people, even visiting Americans, seemed uncertain about why they were there. ‘Everyone I know is fine’, said Jennifer from Los Angeles, ‘but we are here to weep for everyone, for everything’. ‘I am not crying for an individual’, said her friend Maisie, ‘but for America’. Further along, a British man held up a makeshift cardboard placard with the word ‘Why?’ scrawled across it.

There was little sense of the ‘collective grief’ reported by BBC News, but more a sense of individuals thrown together, still stunned by the week’s events and not sure about how to respond. Some of the mourners held flowers, others waved flags, while some just held up the front pages of UK newspapers with pictures of the World Trade Centre’s burning twin towers. There was none of the formality or uniformity that usually accompanies a remembrance – just sad, confused individuals wanting to, in Emmet’s words, ‘do something, anything’.

Even the two minutes’ silence was disrupted by chatting Spanish tourists – until they were scowled at by a fierce-looking American woman.

As the Queen’s Guard played the national anthem I had expected puffed-out chests, hands on hearts and the proud defiance you normally associate with The Star Spangled Banner. But instead, some mumbled the words, others bowed their heads, while some filmed the crowd for posterity. Overnight, the American anthem seemed to have been reduced from a hymn to power and defiance to an expression of victimhood.

‘It’s just like when Diana died’, said London resident Margaret. ‘I was here then, and there were scenes just like this – it’s the same kind of sadness, people are just as shocked.’ In truth, there is no comparison between the death of a celebrity princess in a high-speed car crash in Paris and the deaths of thousands of workers going about their everyday business in New York and Washington – but looking around The Mall running up to Buckingham Palace I couldn’t help noticing similarities in the responses to both events.

The public displays of grief, the laying of flowers, the setting up of condolences books (everywhere from the US Embassy to the Sun’s website to schools across the UK) – we seem to have a taste for post-Diana-style mourning. But what kind of society is it that only seems to feel united around tragedy and loss – even a tragedy as great as this one? ‘We all grieve’, said Margaret. ‘That’s who we are and that’s what we do – we grieve for everybody in these situations.’ Which couldn’t help but make me wonder if there would be similar grieving crowds for the victims of President Bush’s promised retaliation.

As I was leaving I passed the tear-chasing reporter and his cameraman. ‘I think the crying is over’, he said. ‘Shall we go?’

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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