Blair’s Ostrich Syndrome Will Endanger Lives: a British Reaction to the London Bombs

by Stella Jorgensen


The day the British people had been awaiting for four years finally arrived on the seventh of July. On the day there were few tears on display, few screams, no hysteria to speak of. For many, the immediate worry was logistical — how they would make it into work, or how they would get home that evening. The crumpled people who drifted around the series of mini Ground Zeroes like litter seemed more confused than afraid.

Much has been said about London’s legendary stoicism. Three decades of being targeted by the IRA means that London, like few other western cities, has an intimate acquaintance with terrorism. Getting on with the boring but essential business of living is the best (perhaps the only) defence against death, and Londoners have long since made a collective decision that it would take more than bombs to break them.

However, even if we can explain London’s relatively calm response to the tragedy with nods to inevitability and oft-aired resilience, we are harder pushed to understand the reaction of the wider British population in the same terms.

As soon as news of the bombing broke, I began to receive a steady stream of fulsome e-mails from American friends: pictures of twined union flags and stars and stripes, flickering virtual candles, poems, heartfelt expressions of sympathy and friendship. I do not doubt for one second that their sentiment was genuine, but still it felt…odd to me. I am ashamed to admit that I could not escape a vague feeling of being somehow insulted, as if Britain’s ability to cope was being called into question.

Maybe the British public share some measure of this strange feeling, and want to find their own way to cope that doesn’t involve flag waving, public tears or wounded animal cries for vengeance.

Or is their silence explained by their feelings of guilt? The act of terrorism has been universally condemned, and rightly so. Civilians of all colours and creeds stand together and voice their repulsion. Multi-faith statements of solidarity are issued by leading clerics. Newspapers carried solemn black banners. Yet over the last few weeks there has been a growing sense that, as a nation, we are not entirely blameless, and we are certainly not the ones who suffer most.

As I watched the aftermath of the bombing on television, the thought occurred that the fear, the anger and the disgust I felt as I watched my fellow citizens wipe blood from their eyes was just the merest fraction of what the civilians of Iraq have been experiencing for years, with no end in sight. The act of individual terror, revolting though it is, is utterly dwarfed by the relentless onslaught of state terror.

A few days after the tragedy I watched Dr. John Reid, the Defence Secretary, being interviewed. He insisted that this attack had nothing to do with Tony Blair’s disastrous outing in Iraq. Are we to believe he has added clairvoyance to his skills? How can he possibly know what factors motivate dead men who can never explain themselves?

We might never be certain about the first group of bombers, but all of the second group survived, and their professed motives must be accepted. One of their number, Hussain Osman, when arrested in Italy, told authorities that the Iraq war was the motivating factor behind their attempt at bombing. They were radicalised, not by religion, but by video footage of maimed women and children and the screams of grieving widows.

The government line is as ludicrous as it is predictable. Terrorists are evil. They hate our way of life. They do not act out of political motivation. How could the London attacks be motivated by Iraq in any case, since 9/11 happened before the Iraq war? On and on, ad nauseam.

These fallacies do not require much effort to demolish. Firstly, how can terrorists be evil, since they use the same tactics as armies, only on a smaller scale. If Blairite logic is true, this must mean state sanctioned bombers are evil too. Secondly, in this case, “they” do not hate “our” way of life. They are us. They were British-born citizens who lived in vibrant multi-racial communities, as deeply involved in “our” way of life as anyone else. One was a teaching assistant much loved by his pupils, one was a prize winning cricket player, one had a dad who ran that most British of institutions — a chip shop. All were from moderately religious, law abiding families. It is hard to imagine a more assimilated group of people.

As for the claim that terrorism could not be motivated by Iraq since the events of 9/11 occurred before the invasion, one almost feels embarrassed for the government, that they choose to participate in this demeaning game of historical Twister rather than accept the barest responsibility for their actions. Comparing 9/11 and 7/7 is like comparing apples and oranges — they might both be fruit, but they grew on different trees. Prior to the “war on terror” Islamic unease at the US hinged on (among other things) the first attack on Iraq and the ensuing sanctions which killed half a million children under 5; the immovable US support for the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and US military presence in the Saudi holy land and their dealings with the repressive Saudi government. Many other legitimate complaints exist, both historical and contemporaneous, but space does not permit an examination of them here. The important issue to understand is that people who committed terrorism pre 9/11 were motivated by different points of reference than the new wave of bombers. Now, radicalised Islamic eyes are falling to the injustices of the war on terror that has deliberately targeted impoverished, oppressed people with little means of self defence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why won’t our leaders accept this?

When the majority of British people, moderate Muslims around the world and most importantly, actual bombers themselves, say that avenging the slaughter in Iraq is their motivation, it is breathtakingly arrogant of Dr Reid to continue to insist otherwise. Not only arrogant, but dangerous.

If it is important to find the motive of a murderer in order to understand him, it must be crucial to understand what motivates those who commit mass, indiscriminate murder. Unless we understand them, we cannot hope to stop them in future. The government’s collective case of Ostrich Syndrome and denial of any culpability endangers lives in future. Their bizarre attitude is thrown into even sharper relief by the pragmatism of the general public.

Since the bombing, anyone I have asked for an opinion has said that they believe it was motivated by vengeance for Iraq. This sentiment is plainly echoed in a recent Guardian poll, which said that two thirds of British citizens believe Tony Blair is in some measure personally responsible for the bombing, due to the decision he made to invade Iraq. The authorities can dismiss that as gossip if they like. They cannot dismiss this, however: without exception, the ordinary people I spoke to all said they now have a clearer understanding of how frightening it is to be under attack. They all made comparisons between the number of Londoners and Iraqis killed. They all expressed opposition to the war, some of them having changed position since the bombing. Violence made victims out of the British people, and many of them are now reaching out in solidarity to other victims elsewhere.

British people are recognising culpability in such great numbers that there is surprisingly little criticism of their view. In fact, the desire to understand the motivation behind the bombings is so widespread it cannot really be called dissent at all. Those who refuse to ask “why” are firmly in the minority.

Seeing Tony Blair and George Bush pontificating solemnly about protecting our values and our way of life and reiterating the evil nature of the terrorists, ignores the simple fact that in terms of numbers of victims alone, Britain and the US are infinitely worse than a handful of determined amateurs. The main difference between them and the London bombers is that they have a bottomless budget, courtesy of our taxes. Our values and lifestyles have done irreparable damage to people around the world. They need to be re-thought as a matter of some urgency. This basic truth fails to penetrate the dull fog of cliché that surrounds Blair and Bush.

It was with weary resignation that my family and I, watching the ludicrous, irony free pronouncements about the abhorrence of violence and killing, finally turned to each other and laughed out loud.