Friday, July 08, 2005

Bomb attacks in London

The long awaited terrorist attacks took place yesterday morning. 4 separate bombs designed to hit the Underground and road network in Central London. Nearly 40 were killed and many hundreds injured.

I'm recording this not because I have anything special to say but because it cannot be ignored. And by writing down my own, trivial, experiences, the creation of false memories may be prevented.

The attack came the day the G8 summit opened in Scotland and undoubtedly was intended to coincide with it. How bitterly ironic that it also matched the return home from Singapore of the victorious Olympic 2012 team and what a terrible welcome back for those who now must consider the security aspects of the games.

London has seen this before, in the Blitz, in the V1-V2 raids, during the intermittent IRA campaigns. It does not lessen the shock or the horror to remember the past but it adds some perspective. The attacks are dreadful, but most of us are affected only because we experience it through the news or through the paralysing effect on transport.

I was on a Piccadilly line train heading into central London. I think there may already have been a problem because there were more people waiting at Ruislip, and on the first train (a Metropolitan) than usual. At Rayners Lane, at 8:35am, the station attendant announced that the Piccadilly was experiencing delays due to a defective train at Caledonian Road; however a train did come in fairly soon.

Our train moved slowly towards Ealing then we sat motionless outside Acton Town. The driver repeated the story about the train but I knew something was wrong because during some 20 minutes of inaction, not one train passed us in the opposite direction, and this includes the Heathrow branch as well as the Uxbridge. I know now that the first bomb went off at 8:51 on a Circle Line train at Aldgate and the next at 8:56 on a westbound Piccadilly line near Kings Cross. This was the beginning of our hold-up. Eventually our driver announced that the platforms were full but that he had requested one train move off so we could get reach the platform. We reached Acton Town and then, without warning, were ordered not just off the train but to leave the station. Staff, in yellow jackets, were highly visible on the platforms and entrance hall. There was no explanation, but nobody argued since it was obvious that something was badly wrong. Hundreds of people milled in the entrance, urged by the staff to leave. Now we were told that the entire Underground was shut due to a power failure. This was a deliberate untruth since by now the third bomb had gone off on a Circle Line train at Edgware Road; not long after the fourth took the top of a bus in Tavistock Square.

The street outside was jammed with traffic, every bus crammed full. I began walking in what I hoped was the right way toward Acton (Acton Town station is not in any recognisable town centre despite its name) and reached the main road leading into London. I called my office on my mobile several times and had no problem making the calls (there were news reports later of the networks being swamped by calls and unable to cope, but perhaps that was only in central London). There were plenty of buses in both directions but full to the extent that people were blocking the entrance doors. So I walked on and on and eventually managed to squeeze into a bus. It was surprisingly quiet. People were not talking about the problems, and very few were on the phone (not one of those that were spoke English). The driver made no attempt to ask for tickets (and I couldn't reach the box anyway). We made it to Hammersmith, where a board outside the station (the Hammersmith & City part) referred to a problem at Edgware Road as well as Aldgate, and after another walk I got in at 11am. Only then did I learn what had happened.

Living in London there is daily risk from traffic accidents and from street crime. Violence is and always has been relatively high in London compared to the surrounding countryside - see Peter Ackroyds excellent "London - a biography" for accounts spanning a thousand years of riots, fires, jail-breaks and disorderly conduct of every description. The shock of a terrorist attack is not so much of the violence itself but the deliberate intent behind it, and the utter lack of interest in the victims. A political movement that seeks to kill anyone at random? What on earth goes on in their heads? Under what circumstances do they think we will ever have the slightest interest in anything they want? They may threaten us, but since they wish us nothing but harm anyway, their threats have no meaning. We can't negotiate with them. We can't understand them. We will take precautions but in the end we will simply ignore them. Like malaria, we do what we can to eradicate it but we don't seek to understand the motivation of the virus or the mosquito that carries it.

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