7/7: a year on, darkness and confusion still reign
The anniversary of the London bombings is not an occasion for silence, but for some overdue debate.
A year after the London bombings, the damage to the Underground system and the streets has long since been repaired and plenty of new security barriers have been built. But there remains a gaping hole where a clear political response to the attacks ought to be. As people are left wondering whether they are safe and what they are up against, things can seem as dark and confused as they must have done down those tunnels on 7 July 2005.
There are two 7/7 stories unravelling on the anniversary. On one hand there are the official rituals – the remembrance ceremonies and two-minute silence – in which the government parades around the survivors and victims’ relatives in a national grief-fest, to broadcast a message about national unity in mourning and resilience. Here the authorities are trying to blow up the four bombings that left 56 dead and several hundred injured into something akin to the Second World War.
These sombre rituals of solidarity in Regents Park and St Paul’s cathedral seem a world away from reactions on the ground in the UK. There, all is a state of confusion and division surrounding the anniversary. People are pointing the finger, looking for somebody to blame for the bombings, alleging cover-ups and conspiracies, demanding more compensation for those who suffered. Many of the heroes of 7/7, who sought no reward for helping others in the moment of crisis, since seem to have been turned into full-time victims with an all-purpose grievance.
In short we might say that, while the official response has exaggerated the national importance of the terrorist attacks on 7/7, these reactions have trivialised them. In this discussion the London bombings appear to have lost any unique political significance, and become just another disaster like a rail crash, following a familiar script written by campaigning survivors, compensation lawyers, conspiracy-mongers and human-interest journalists.
This confusion about how to respond to 7/7 a year on reflects the uncertainty at the heart of our society today. What and where is the ‘war on terror’? Who exactly is it being fought against? Unlike in other wars, there is no clear political and military conflict between two armies. There are claims and counter-claims about whether the Iraq war was the ’cause’ of the London bombings, but it remains unclear how and why that could have prompted British-born Muslims from Leeds to blow up trains and a bus in London. The public are left wondering what to make of all this. We are urged to ‘remember’ on 7/7, but remember what, apart from the well-worn images of bloodied commuters?
We are in danger of losing the plot, as players in the post-7/7 game mill around looking for conspiracies and demanding inquiries. The uncertainty about what happened and why means that everybody has felt free to project their own pet meanings on to these events – which is particularly unhelpful when, as Brendan O’Neill recently analysed on spiked, it makes more sense to see the bombings as an essentially meaningless act, terrorism as an end in itself (see The truth about 7/7: it was meaningless, by Brendan O’Neill).
This confused environment results from a climate of political purposelessness, in which all sides seem to lack the clear worldview to make sense of events and see how to change things. The old signposts of left and right, or even of terrorist and freedom fighter, do not help much in navigating the changed landscape of the twenty-first century. Nor have any new coherent frameworks developed to take their place. We are left with a sense of emptiness in which nobody appears to believe anything they are told about 7/7, where every statement of fact is widely seen as a lie waiting to be exposed, and every denial is taken as further proof of a cover-up.
Such a mixture of confusion, political purposelessness and fear lends itself to the sort of nihilistic action by a few individuals, lashing out against everything and nothing, that we saw last 7 July. As Munira Mirza examines elsewhere on spiked, theirs is an essentially narcissistic reaction to an empty situation where nothing seems bigger or more important than their own ego (see Why we should ignore Shehzad Tanweer’s pompous video, by Munira Mirza). It also gives rise to an equally confused official reaction that can only make matters worse.
Thus over the past 12 months, we have witnessed the British authorities declare all-out war on Islamic terrorists, while at the same time warning us not to use the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’; sending an army of police to protect London transport from invisible bombers, and another to protect mosques from an imaginary army of Islamophobes; declaring that they are ‘not afraid’, then acting as if in a terrified panic when shooting dead an innocent civilian and launching a 250-strong police raid on a family home; dedicating themselves to stand up for freedom and democracy, then pushing through increasingly illiberal laws and bans; calling for unity in society, while exhibiting their own deep mistrust of both the white working classes (seen as a racist-religious pogrom waiting to happen when a bomb goes off), and young Muslims (seen as al-Qaeda sleepers waiting to explode at a word from some semi-literate imam).
The top-to-bottom confusion about how we should see the events of 7/7 means that many people now experience the threat of terrorism as just another form of insecurity in a generally anxious age. It has lost any particular significance or political importance. It was striking in London in the run-up to the anniversary that, while some looked a little more edgy using public transport, nobody seemed keen to discuss the bombings or what they might mean now.
This confusion has dissipated much of the positive reaction that we saw on 7/7, when so many people rose to the occasion and stood together. That potential platform for a new sort of strength and solidarity has crumbled into a mess of shrill recriminations, allegations and sordid squabbles over money. People are certainly not paralysed by fear, and have got on with their everyday lives. But it seems that the only sort of ‘solidarity’ the authorities can appeal to today is a supposed collective of vulnerable proxy victims, bowing our heads together for a two-minute silence. Each time they stage these mawkish stunts, the reaction is less and less positive.
The mixed-up trends of the past 12 months have also wasted the opportunity for a full debate about the big questions that were raised by 7/7 and our reactions to it – questions about who we are now, and what sort of society we want to live in together in the future. This should not just be a debate about ‘Muslim alienation’, but how about the rest of us relate to one another.
Instead we are left with media-shaped non-debates around questions such as ‘Is Britain safer now than a year ago?’ Since such questions appeal directly to public insecurities, the majority answer given in every survey is inevitably ‘No!’ The real questions we should be asking, however, might be more like: given that ‘Britain’ – ie, our society – could never be threatened by a relative handful of nihilistic terrorists, why do we feel so unsafe and insecure? And what can we do about giving ourselves a more secure sense of solidarity? (And no, I don’t mean identity cards or 90-day detention laws, or any other gestures of official paranoia.)
The last thing we need on the anniversary of the London bombings is silence (except perhaps from the shroud-wavers of the government-led grief industry). We need a loud and clear no-holds-barred debate on society’s first principles, one that can cut through all of the confused clamour and start to fill the void at the heart of the 7/7 story. If we want to shape the present and the future, it is never too late to start making sense of the past.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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