Published 23 July, 2005-07-23
Last Thursday it seemed to be happening again - three tubes and the number 26 bus in Hackney, just by Bethnal Green. Nobody hurt because the bombs didn't work. One theory goes that the recent police raids uncovered the bombers' stock of detonators and they had to improvise - badly it would appear.
One fanatical islamic scientist wanted for a variety of freelance projects, must speak English like a native, be of impeccable character (i.e. below the security radar) and be available at short notice. The role will involve frequent travel abroad and multiple passports will be an asset. The candidate will be working with teams of young people and strong motivational skills are essential.
I just made that up because I am trying to imagine how you recruit for these activities. Seems it's not so easy to make a bomb that works, which was just as well for Londoners at the moment. But there's little consolation to be derived from the knowledge that this week's lot of suicide bombers botched things up.
Botchers they may be but they got away! This is very scary. On the tube at Shepherd's Bush (up the road from the BBC for maximum news coverage) one man was described as lying on top of his bag while it detonated but failed to explode. He then got up, ran out of the tube and down the tracks to freedom. Off home for a nice cup of tea no doubt. Like running away after a schoolboy prank.
And where is he drinking his cup of tea - in your local caff, next door, by the coffee machine at work? He might be teaching your children or nursing your granny - he could be anywhere, anyone, he is the enemy within. He's as british as anyone else but he follows a different course - his moral map is not british. He probably went to school here, sat through the endless assemblies full of CofE moralising, preaching tolerance and inclusiveness and forgiving. This CofEness is a unique identifier of the english psyche, part of the english condition. Why is Mr. Suicide Bomber unaffected by the monotonous, repetitive power of the assembly?
Thursday was followed by Friday (as happens) and a man in a winter coat is shot dead in a tube train in Stockwell by armed policemen. One of the world's best ever eye witnesses was on the TV half an hour later, describing the scene. He was sitting on the tube at Stockwell, reading his paper, on his way to meet his boss at London Bridge (incidentally, my sister's daily route to work). A guy half trips into the tube, is pushed to the ground by 3 armed men, and "they unloaded 5 bullets into him". He described the absolute pandemonium that followed as people fled the scene. He was giving up on work and heading to the pub for a stiff scotch instead. Another aspect of the english condition - the pub is a great refuge in a crisis.
Now, London is in shock, like it hasn't been in recent weeks. People being shot dead in the tube is not British - it's something that you see on TV or in Bruce Willis movies. Five bullets seems a bit excessive, but he was wearing a big bulky jacket on a hot day and ignored calls to stop. And in the current climate, failing to stop is either extremely dumb or a sign that somebody has a lot to hide, perhaps a bomb.
I was planning a trip to London today. My sister was planning to go up west shopping today. We've both cancelled and people are cancelling all over London this weekend. Why are we scared now after taking it on the chin with stoicism 2 weeks ago, in the face of such carnage? This week's bombers failed but they got away. Will they try again? How many more of them are there? 4 bombers on a carefully orchestrated and executed mission is a major incident. 4 bombers on a botched mission could become an everday occurence - any 17 year old with a rebellious streak could take a shot at martyrdom - if it works he wins and if it doesn't he runs away. And there's plenty more where he came from. Or am I getting paranoid? If I am, I am not alone - paranoia, fear, hysteria - they are all creeping in.
Meantime, New Yorkers are subject to random searches on the subway because of the bombs in London. There's something almost peevish about this - like they are jealous of all the attention London is getting because New York should be the mother-of-all targets. Ken Livingstone ruled out such searches in London on logistical grounds. Getting to and from work in London is stressful enough as is without adding the prospect of interminable queues for searching.
However, how will people get to work? People are becoming increasingly worried about tube travel and are seeking alternatives. Friday morning's shooting was the last straw for some - it's just not cricket to have to deal with a shooting on the way to the office. Bombs are one thing, but police marksmen and dead bodies are another.
Are we about to see a revolution in London society, as people stop going to the office and work from home instead. If we're not out and about on the transport network they can't get us. Even with an endless stream of fanatics, they can't get us all in our houses, can they? This is not giving in to terrorism, in fact it pulls the rug from under it. Perhaps we should have a national work at home day to try it out and send a clear message to the enemy - we'll recognise you because you will be the one on the empty tube looking for a crowd to blow up.
I don't like talking about terrorism - it is a misused and emotive term. The notion of waging war on something as vague would be laughable except that it's true. This week, for the first time since September 11, I felt terror - the terror of wondering whether the person next to you is about to trigger a bomb. The absolute terror of realising that a faceless enemy hates you with such intensity that he will not stop until he gets you. The blinding terror of feeling completely and utterly powerless to protect yourself. All day, every day.
With every statement, the police and politicians remind us that these acts are the acts of criminals and not of a community. But the noises coming from Islamic communities do not reassure me. Pakistan may be licensing its religious schools but it is also pointing the finger firmly at Britain, saying that it needs to clean up its act. Muslims feel quite at liberty to say that as long as Britain is at war in an Islamic country she must expect what she gets. Excuse me. Why is that so? I don't agree with the Iraq war - what is legitimate about killing me? A 7 year old child has no say in the wars we wage - what is legitimate about killing them?
Why do so many people in this country lack a sense of allegiance to their country and who give religion priority over community? Why do so many people in this country think it is acceptable not to speak English, and not to mix with English people? How has this occured and how can we fix it?
Ever since Enoch Powell's infamous Rivers of Blood speech in the 60s, English society has been very reticent about discussing ethnic issues - it is dangerous territory, full of potential pitfalls for the politically correct. In France they are not nearly as sensitive and 63% of french people admit to having racist opinions. They think it is quite OK to do so. I don't. However, I do think there should be a couple of basic rules for all immigrants to any country - learn the local language and send your children to school with local children.
My mate Nina taught English on a voluntary basis to muslim women in Hackney. One of her students came to her in desperation after her husband divorced her (the immam came to tell her), took their children and left her penniless and on the verge of homelessness. And she did not have enough English to get by. Nina took her to social services and the housing department and the hospital - she was also ill due to the damp in her bedsit. There isn't a Nina living on every block and there are many women in England who are not so lucky, isolated from the host community by lack of English, completely dependent on the goodwill of sexist husbands.
In our desire to be inclusive, we have been too tolerant and turned a blind eye to sexism which came packaged with religion. In hindsight I think we are realising we have been too tolerant about a lot of things. Far too many people living here have no sense of allegiance to England; it was never a requirement. The last thing we need right now is nationalism, but it is important to be loyal to your home - this is a kind of essential social value.