Fantasy terrorism: an incendiary device?

Chris Cleave, author of a novel about a suicide attack in London that was eerily published on 7/7, debates the relationship between culture and terror.

Brendan O'Neill
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Talk about bad timing. On the morning of Thursday, 7 July, as three young men from Leeds and a fourth from Huddersfield were making their way to London with bombs on their backs, preparing to become Britain’s first-ever suicide bombers, the publishing house Chatto & Windus was preparing a publicity blitz for a new novel – about suicide bombers attacking London.

Posters advertising the novel – Incendiary by one-time journalist and first-time novelist Chris Cleave – had gone up in 150 London Underground stations on 6 July, the day before the attacks. They showed a bomb lurking ominously above the London skyline, bits of which were consumed by fire and smoke, under the chilling tagline: ‘WHAT IF…?’ The answer to that question came at 8.50am on 7 July, when three bombs exploded on the Underground and a fourth an hour later on a bus in Tavistock Square, killing more than 50 civilians. Chatto & Windus were more than a little freaked out: they put a brake on the publicity drive, pulled the posters from the Underground (though not quickly enough to prevent many people from complaining), and delayed publication.

Author Chris Cleave was at first perturbed, and later a little bit peeved, that his tale of suicide bombers striking a London target was published on the same day that four suicide bombers struck London targets. Perturbed because it was such an ‘eerie coincidence’, leading to frantic phone calls between author and publisher about what to do next. ‘We decided to take down the “WHAT IF?” posters’, he tells me. ‘Because what had seemed like an interesting question the day before suddenly seemed in acutely bad taste.’

Now, three weeks later, Cleave is understandably peeved that certain bookstores still refuse to put Incendiary – with its London-skyline cover illustration and literally explosive title – on prominent display, lest they offend shoppers. ‘I think it’s very difficult for people to dissociate the subject matter of the story from the conditions of its publication’, he says. Pre-bombings, Waterstone’s had planned big things for Incendiary, including in-store posters. Post-bombings, they’ve all but hidden the book from public view; I had to ask for a copy in a Waterstone’s after fruitlessly exploring the new fiction shelves for 10 minutes.

Incendiary tells the story of an East End family ripped apart when 11 suicide bombers target Arsenal FC’s home ground in Highbury, leaving 1,003 people dead. The book is written in the style of a letter to Osama bin Laden by a widow whose copper husband and four-year-old boy are killed in the attack. ‘Dear Osama…’, it goes, ‘I’m going to write so you can look into my empty life and see what a human boy really is from the shape of the hole he leaves behind.’

Now that non-fictional suicide bombers have answered the question posed by Chatto & Windus, ‘WHAT IF?’ – though thankfully on a far smaller scale than imagined in Incendiary, and on the Underground rather than at a football ground – Cleave has thought long and hard about ‘the relationship between culture and terrorism’. He thinks a novel about terrorism can be both ‘a helpful and a harmful thing’.

‘By addressing terrorism in a hopefully interesting way, by asking people to think more deeply about the issue, that can make a novel about terrorism useful. But at the same time, by making such a big deal out of terrorism, you inadvertently contribute to the terrorists’ mission – which is to change the way people think, to get people focusing on terrorism rather than on the big issues.’

If there is a relationship between culture and terrorism, it is surely that culture has seemed rather ghoulishly obsessed by terrorism in recent years, and by the possibility that some terrible thing will occur in Britain and leave hundreds – no, thousands – of us dead or horribly maimed. In the four years since 9/11, we Britons have had a hell of a lot of what you might call fantasy terrorism – where filmmakers, writers and, indeed, public officials, have tirelessly told us that terror is on its way and that we had better bloody well prepare for it – and only one incident of real terrorism, the 7/7 bombings, followed by a failed incident two weeks later. Perhaps the relationship between culture and terror is deeper and more ominous than Cleave allows. By fretting and fantasising about terrorism, everywhere from novels to docudramas to scary news stories on the frontpages of the papers about evil men in our midst plotting evil things (which often are as fictional as the cultural stuff), have we effectively written the script for terrorists who want to tap into our deepest fears and insecurities?

There are more eerie coincidences than the fact that Incendiary was due to be published on 7/7. Last year, the BBC screened two ‘docudramas’ – programmes that are a mix of news and fiction (and, in these two instances, scaremongering) – about terror attacks on London, both of which showed Liverpool Street station being targeted. In London Under Attack, shown in May 2004 as part of a Panorama programme on how the emergency services might respond to a terror attack, a lorry containing chlorine gas was blown up just north of Liverpool Street station, killing 3,000 people. In Dirty War, shown on BBC TV in September 2004, a suicide terrorist detonated a ‘dirty bomb’ outside Liverpool Street, killing 200 people and making the area uninhabitable for 30 years.

Also last year, Andy McNab, the shadowy former SAS man turned Sun commentator on war, terrorism and bad things in general, published a novel called Dark Winter. It was about a terrorist plot to unleash pneumonic plague in the UK, and again featured Liverpool Street station as a target. This year, of course, on 7/7, Liverpool Street did become a target, when 22-year-old Shehzad Tanweer blew himself up on a Circle Line train approaching the station. Again, the real terrorist act caused far fewer fatalities than those feverishly imagined by the BBC and McNab: seven were killed at Liverpool Street on 7/7, including Tanweer, and around 100 were injured (1).

In 2002, the BBC screened the fictional Smallpox 2002: Silent Weapon, which depicted…can you guess? In the same year the government announced that it had spent £32million on anti-smallpox vaccines in order to protect us from ‘the nightmare crisis of suicide terrorists infecting themselves and spreading the disease around Britain’, in the words of one paper – all this despite the fact that smallpox was eradicated as a disease in 1977 and the only known samples of it are under lock and key in labs in America and Russia (2). We’ve also had ‘What if?’-themed TV programmes (beating Chatto & Windus to that scary question), which have asked, and shown, what would happen in a terror attack. And pre-7/7, Film Four, in association with Archer Street Films, had snapped up the film rights to Incendiary, even before it had been published, and hired Sharon Maguire (director of Bridget Jones’ Diary) to shoot it (3).

These frightening ‘What if?’ scenarios in film and fiction come from the top down, from government officials who have warned incessantly since 9/11 that it’s not a matter of if, but when terrorists will wreak havoc in the UK. It was recently reported that some foreign al-Qaeda associate might have visited Britain prior to 7/7 and decided that the London Underground would be the best target for four young British men to attack. He could have found that out from wherever he’s allegedly based, via Google: numerous British officials have warned on numerous occasions that the Underground is a ‘likely terrorist target’, and even seemed to advertise the idea by staging a mock terror attack on Bank Underground station in September 2003 to test the preparedness of the emergency services. ‘Apocalypse NOW’ said a Sun headline above a photograph of that mock attack (4).

I’ve never been a big fan of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard of ‘the Gulf War didn’t really happen’ fame (or infamy), but perhaps he had a point in his post-9/11 essay ‘The Spirit of Terrorism’. He argued that the West had fantasised about being attacked – in those ‘countless disaster movies’, for example – and then it was attacked. ‘At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it’, wrote Baudrillard. He also wrote of a ‘terroristic imagination’ that has its origins in the West, and went so far as to argue that the Twin Towers committed suicide (they ‘joined in to round off the event’) on 9/11: ‘In a sense, the entire system, by its internal fragility, lent the initial action a helping hand.’ (5)

Leaving aside the more obscurantist sentiments behind Baudrillard’s musings, is it possible that this widespread ‘terroristic imagination’ in Britain, Europe and the USA, the way in which we effectively advertise our fears, actually encourages the terrorists to have a pop? I don’t mean that in some lame, copycat-theory, sub-Mary Whitehouse way (as if the 7/7 bombers watched a BBC docudrama and thought to themselves: ‘Yeah, that’s a good idea’), but, more fundamentally, in the sense that we have made terrorism a self-fulfilling prophecy by showing the terrorists how terribly scared we are.

Cleave seems unsure. ‘Certainly I think it is important that we don’t give the terrorists ideas’, he says. ‘As to whether we are feeding terrorists our worst fears and they are responding by delivering them to us as reality – that is an interesting, philosophical question. I hope we are not doing that.’

One could argue that terrorism is, by and large, the product of fevered imaginations in the West. Of course, there are occasional real acts of terrorism, and each one of them has been horrific, but they remain rare, scrappy and disparate. Our obsession with terrorism, however, whether politically or culturally, has been a constant since 9/11 and is entirely disproportionate to the threat posed by handfuls of cranks from Leeds, Hamburg or Karachi. And our imaginings of what will happen if terrorists strike – thousands killed at Liverpool Street, bits of London shut down for decades, plagues unleashed and nukes detonated – are always worse than what tends to occur in reality, whether at Bali (202 dead), Madrid (191 dead) or London (56 dead, including the four bombers).

Consider the theme of Cleave’s book: bombings at a football stadium that kill over a thousand fans. Cleave tells me that he chose this storyline because it has already been raised as a possibility by government officials and members of the security services – ‘so I don’t think I am giving the terrorists ideas they haven’t already had, or anything that wasn’t already in the public domain’, he says. Yet the idea that a football stadium might be bombed is also, it would appear, the product of our own fearful imaginations rather than something that came from the terrorists themselves.

In April 2004, 10 people were arrested in dawn raids in Manchester, England. They were reported to have been planning a ‘spectacular’ bomb attack on a Man Utd game at Old Trafford. It later transpired that the only evidence for this was the discovery of tickets for Old Trafford found in these individuals’ homes. They were United fans who kept their old ticket stubs as souvenirs, and were later released without charge. Yet the story of a potential attack on a football stadium spread around the world: ‘Raid averts stadium terror attack’ said one headline; ‘Soccer suicide carnage averted’ said another. One police source was quoted as saying: ‘If successful, any such attack would have caused absolute carnage. Thousands of people could have been killed.’ (6) Now this scenario has been immortalised in a novel and may well become a film.

It is us, not them, who came up with the horrible scenario of hundreds of fans being blown to smithereens in a football stadium, just as we have also fantasised about other atrocities being visited upon us. Should we really be surprised if some cranky loner with issues and a grudge decides to play along, in real time?

Read on:

spiked-issue: London bombs

(1) They were terrorists…and they were British, John Steele, Paul Stokes and Ben Fenton, Daily Telegraph, 13 July 2005

(2) See The sleaze disease, by Brendan O’Neill

(3) Dear Osama, Daily Telegraph, 10 July 2005

(4) ‘Apocalypse NOW’, Sun, 9 September 2003

(5) The Spirit of Terrorism, Jean Baudrillard, Verso, 2002

(6) Man U bomb plot probe ends in farce, Tariq Panja and Martin Bright, Observer, 2 May 2004

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