After the London bombs: don’t let the culture of fear win either

It seems that some people want us all to remain stuck in those tunnels for as long as possible.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It now appears that the terrorists who bombed London died in the blasts. But many people who should know better seem determined to keep the feeling of terror live.

London not only survived last week’s terrorist bombs, as it inevitably would, but came through the grim experience with an uplifting sense of human solidarity. Since then, however, we have had to endure a different sort of barrage from all manner of professional ghouls and vultures, trying to feed off the tragedy. Their message is that the terror attack was far worse than we imagined, and that we are all victims – weaker and more vulnerable and afraid than we looked last week. They are in danger of turning what was a triumph of the human spirit into another victory for the Culture of Fear.

After the attacks many remarked on the collective resilience people had shown. One phenomenon to come out of the bombings was the ‘We are not afraid’ website, visited by millions who want to show their solidarity and make a gesture of defiance. Yet others in influential places have spent the past week trying to convince us that we really are afraid, or traumatised, or at least that we ought to be if we are not yet.

Too much of the media coverage and discussion of the bombings has dwelt on the grisly details of the attacks and their aftermath. Indeed, as the days have passed, we have been given more and more detailed accounts of the horrors in the Underground train tunnels and on the Number 30 bus. Meanwhile, the endless reports and pictures of the victims make it feel as if there were far more killed than the actual death toll, now expected to reach 70.

All of this must have had an impact on how we perceive events with hindsight. One journalist probably spoke for many people when she said that, having initially thought that London had coped well, she had now learned that she was wrong, and London suffered terribly. Memories of the quiet determination to get on with it that marked the response to the bombings are in danger of being buried beneath all the macabre reports of burning flesh and shattered bodies. In the process, we risk blowing up four localised attacks so much that it seems we are facing a threat the size of the Second World War Blitz. Little wonder that, while millions have returned to work in London, others are still very wary of coming into the city centre.

There are also those who seem determined not only to make us feel worse about the bombings, but to make us display those feelings. Prime minister Tony Blair praised the ‘stoicism’ of people in London. But stoicism – defined as impassive courage, or keeping one’s emotions in check – is considered highly unfashionable, if not dangerous, these days. Under the therapeutic approach to social and personal issues that has blossomed in the Blair years, the conventional wisdom has become that the traditional ‘stiff upper lip’ is a bad thing, and that instead we should be encouraged to emote openly, to feel others’ pain in public, and to mourn together.

This morbid preoccupation led to a situation where the New Labour government and London mayor Ken Livingstone rushed to announce official memorial gardens and books of condolences for the victims of the bombings, even before we knew who they were or how many of them had died. It was inevitable that two minutes’ silence would be announced in response to such a major incident – it is hard to object to that, given that a minute’s silence can now routinely be held at football matches for the death of just about anybody. However, the danger is that this will not mark a dignified end to the mourning, but only the start of official memorial-mania around the London bombs. We might recall how, after the terrorist attacks on America on 11 September 2001, ceremonies were even held to mark something called the ‘three-month anniversary’.

The underlying message of much of this is that we all need to feel part of the grieving process, and that there were many more victims of the bombings than those killed or maimed. This line has been peddled by the evangelical wing of the trauma counselling industry, who insist that more and more counselling is needed. The therapeutic response to terrorism has been endorsed by the government, and organisations from Victim Support to the Salvation Army have been queuing up to offer their counselling services to anybody touched by the London attacks.

The argument is that, even if you don’t feel traumatised yet, you may well later unless you seek professional help now – a sort of therapeutic version of the ‘timebomb’ arguments we hear to justify all sorts of interventionist public health policies these days. Yet as the leading psychiatrist Simon Wessely argues elsewhere on spiked, the ill-advised rush to trauma counselling can do more harm than good, turning people into victims who are doing perfectly well without professional help (see The bombs made enough victims – let’s not make more, by Simon Wessely).

Again, the experience of 9/11 should act as a warning. People in New York showed great fortitude during and after those terror attacks on the World Trade Center (which were far more destructive, of course, than the London bombings). Afterwards, however, trauma experts began talking about an apparently widespread affliction labelled ‘WTC cough’. Despite the lack of medical evidence that any such thing existed, thousands of New Yorkers became convinced they were suffering from it. After the London bombings, how long will it be before we hear the first warnings about ‘7/7 syndrome’?

So soon after people in London rose to the occasion together, many are now trying to place a misanthropic interpretation on reactions to the terror attacks. The one emotion we are not allowed to show in these times is anger. ‘Rage’ is seen as the mentality of the mob. And almost since the moment the bombs went off, we have been warned of an anti-Muslim backlash among whites. This says far more about the prejudices of the experts and authorities than about the realities of life in multi-ethnic Britain today. As Josie Appleton argues, there has been no popular outburst of ‘Islamophobia’ – no thanks to those experts and authorities who have long branded the white working class Islamophobic in a way that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their contempt for the ignorant masses risks creating a problem where one did not exist. (See Who’s whipping up Islamophobia?, by Josie Appleton.)

For the past few years, we have published articles on spiked about the menace to life and liberty posed by the creeping Culture of Fear in our societies. The response to something like the London bombings reaffirmed our conviction that humanity can rise above that stifling atmosphere when it has to. Yet now we see the prophets of the Culture of Fear in the ascendant once more, gnawing away at our resilience with their emphasis on vulnerability and suffering and grief and the unknown threats to come. It seems that some people want us all to remain trapped in those tunnels for as long as possible. In this atmosphere the revelation that the bombers were British Muslims, while it should not come as a shock to anybody familiar with the nature of terrorism today, can only reinforce the widespread feelings of mistrust and insecurity (see British-born bombers: not so shocking, by Brendan O’Neill).

It is time to move on, ignore the doomsayers and the Culture of Fear vultures, and start a proper debate about life in Britain after the London bombs – about how we can turn that inner resilience into a force for a better and stronger society, and what it is that we want to stand and fight for, beyond opposing a handful of bombers. Such a debate would be a first step towards consolidating the sense that we are in this together – and not only when somebody is trying to blow us up.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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Topics Politics


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