It wasn't 9/11 ...
As I write, U.K. media are reporting 4 more blasts at London
tube stations, and on another one of its famous double-decker
buses. It's too early to confirm all the facts, so I will
apply the BBC's "accuracy is more important than speed"
principle and wait for more information.
Amid this confusion, my first column "from across the
pond," will sum up my reaction, as an American in London,
to the July 7 bombings.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said today, "We know why these
things are done. They are done to scare people, to frighten
them, to make them anxious and worried...We've just got to
What struck me about the attacks two weeks ago was this same
composed, business as usual attitude embodied by most Londoners.
It wasnt 9/11. It wasn't chaos. I mentioned this to
a colleague, and he responded in typical British fashion:
"Stiff upper lip, isn't it."
While the events were tragic, it was sometimes embarrassing
to watch British media try extract all the drama and emotion
from the day's events. Independent Television (ITV), a private
alternative to the BBC's state monopoly, had a digital counter
tolling the dead during its daily roundup.
Photos of Shahara Islam, a 20-year-old Muslim who died in
the bombings, were splashed on the front pages of newspapers
under headings that read, "killed in the name of her
own faith." While the statement is true, I can't help
but think that the papers had used tragic story of a beautiful
East London woman in a cheap way, highlighting her as the
"token" Muslim victim.
It seems that "7/7" has been modelled into a "9/11"
style story. We should challenge this assumption.
The Myth of Londonistan
I was disappointed to see my hometown newspaper, The San Jose
Mercury News, along with major U.S. media, succumb to knee-jerk
coverage of "Londonistan" as a hotbed of terrorism.
The fact is that four men, and their as-yet-undiscovered
accomplices, killed more than 50 people for the sake of a
distorted, not mainstream, version of Islam. But there are
1.6 million Muslims in this country.
The bombers were from Leeds. Londoners can be quite precious
about their city origins, and to confuse a Londoner on July
6th with a person from Leeds would have been humorous, but
quickly dismissed. Foreign media seem to think that all Britons
live in London, which is untrue.
The concept of "Londonistan," is oversimplified
and misleading. Muslim extremists are not running amok on
the streets of the capital, congregating en masse at the Finsbury
Park mosque. About three percent of Britons are Muslims, and
the extremists are anomalies, scattered across the country.
This is true in the U.S. as well.
As stated by Lynne O'Donnell in the Merc and echoed by U.S.
papers, Britain allowed the terrorists to "use the country's
liberal values as a protective umbrella for openly preaching
jihad." Furthermore, "lax security" allowed
them to create a strong network of radical extremism.
I fear that this argument is getting too much airplay in
the States, and as a reminder, the same kinds of things were
also said after 9/11. Intelligence existed in both the U.S.
and U.K. prior to the attacks. But terrorism is still unpredictable.
Within two weeks, London authorities have identified the
bombers, apprehended suspects, met with Muslim community leaders,
and cooperated extensively with Pakistani authorities in their
investigation. The response is broad, incorporating law enforcement,
the emergency services, legislature, diplomacy and the Muslim
community to deal with the attacks.
My friend from Luton, where the bombers boarded connecting
trains to London, spoke to me at length about the events of
July 7. It's hard to find opinions like hers on television
or on the covers of newspapers, but I suspect that these views
are common among many British Muslims.
First, Islam forbids the killing of innocent civilians. Second,
the concept of jihad applies to combat between soldiers in
battle. Third, while many Muslims are politically and morally
outraged by Western military actions in the Muslim world,
but they are just as outraged by the attacks as non-Muslims.
While the bombings were an disgraceful and perverted demonstration
of outrage against western policy, moderate Muslims are still
disgusted by the mayhem caused by the Iraq war, and the abuses
at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison. But people
who express these views are now likely to be branded as "terrorists"
or extremists, rather than moderates with legitimate political
My friend told me that she could sadly "identify"
with the bombers. They were "cleanskins," normal
Brits who had never been in trouble before. Politically, she
opposes U.S. and U.K. policies which she views as anti-Islamic
and also understands the resentment underlying the bombers'
actions. However, she felt the suicide bombers had been brainwashed
into carrying out acts which were contrary to her faith.
The BBC and Rupert Murdoch-owned Sky News both aired an interviews
with politicized, angry young Muslim men after the attacks.
Muslim clerics' photographs in the newspapers are often shot
from a low angle and with strange light to make them look
as evil as possible.
These types of caricatures make it easy for people to stereotype
Muslims as fanatics. They stir up the type of racism and religious
hatred which has already led to one man being beaten to death
in the north of the country.
The Iraq Connection
Respected think tank Chatham House said there is "no
doubt" that Britain's involvement in the Iraq war contributed
to the London terrorist attacks. Sixty four percent of The
Guardian newspaper readers agreed. Beyond that, it seems obvious
that military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan have angered
and galvanized the Muslim world.
This connection is not so obvious to U.K. Prime Minister
Tony Blair, foreign secretary Jack Straw, and defence secretary
John Reid, who strenuously deny the possibility that the bombings
were connected to Iraq.
The government is trying to steamroll controversial crime
legislation through parliament that enables police to detain
suspected terrorists. The legislation is criticized by human
rights watchdogs as being too open to abuse. This may sound
familiar to Americans witnessed the introduction of the Patriot
Despite the fact that a bomb had been detonated on a London
bus the morning of July 7, the double-deckers were back in
use about 6 hours later. This wasn't an irresponsible move
by Transport for London, but a pragmatic one in a city that
carries 3 million commuters a day.
The number 30 bus route connects my neighborhood to central
London. Even as someone who could have been directly affected
by the blasts, I found Londoners' attitudes infectious in
their disinterest to apparent danger.
Thwarted commuters also flooded the streets, and in the two
and a half hours it took me to walk home, I had never shared
the sidewalk with so many people.
The composure of Londoners bordered on indifference, but
a basic attitude prevailed, that of "getting on with
it," and coping with the more immediate problem: how
to get home.