7/7, the London bombings: first thoughts

by Stephen Tall on July 8, 2005

Post-modernists believe all history is text; they may be right, but the present is txt. Two hastily thumbed messages from my dad, separated by 23 hours and 52 minutes, book-ended London’s day of triumph and terror: “Olympics 4 london”; later to be followed by “London bombs see tv”.

Our lives today are lived through this personal technology: from such news alerts which bring cheers and tears; to the mobile cameras which capture a Tube carriage’s shaken chaos; and the voice at the end of a line which says hello, sweeping away your worst fears, replacing them with guilty relief.

Within hours of today’s tragedy, I had swapped reassurances of well-being with those closest friends I knew to be living and working in central London. We are fortunate not to inhabit some Jane Austen world of hopeless, helpless longeurs, in which a heroine’s declaration of love must be communicated by letter across Europe to where her hero fights for crown and country. We live in the here and now. Mobile-ophiles always told us the secret of their success over land-lines would be that we want to phone people, not places. Today we wanted to phone loved ones in order to know their whereabouts, to confirm they were well away from trouble.

One unexpected side-effect of our fast-paced technology is to discern the rhythm of such atrocities. If you hear the news within minutes of it happening; if you know all your friends and family are safe within the hour; if the Queen, Archbishop, Prime Minister and Mayor have all issued statements within six hours; if you are writing a website article within 12 hours – when is the right time to think, to rationalise, to get angry, to mourn, to joke, to argue, to debate, to feel?

Just a few hours after the attacks, BBC Radio 4 interviewers, understandably trying to find a new angle to advance their fact-lite extended coverage, were quizzing the Home Secretary, Mr Charles Clarke, and the Opposition leader, Mr Michael Howard, about whether the Conservative Party’s manifesto proposal to create a Ministry of Homeland Security could have helped prevent today’s events. Both men deflected the question on the grounds that “today is not the day for such questions”. And they were right to do so. Objectivity requires distance.

But it is a natural, indeed healthy, human reflex instantly to think “what’s next?” And, in this instance, that next will rouse passions – about ID cards, the success of the security services’ surveillance, Mr Blair’s decision to go to war in Iraq, proposed Government measures to detain suspects without firm evidence of wrong-doing, the Middle-East peace process, etc.

Our current technological rate of change is exponential; that in our intellectual and emotional intelligence is too often linear. Moments of tragedy, like today’s, expose just how wide is that synaptic gap. It suits us to play out life at fast-forward pace, but we may only be able to make sense of it all if, occasionally, we pause the track.

I’ve been on holiday for a week: when I left, everything was Live 8, the G8 and Geldof. The world’s leaders would deploy their time at Gleneagles to help defeat climate change and global poverty: realities which threaten to kill, or already are killing, millions of people.

Yet today, and for days to come, it is the 7/7 bombings – these 52 deaths and counting – which will dominate our thoughts, our conversations, our movements. Josef Stalin infamously remarked that the death of one person was a tragedy, the death of a million a mere statistic. The memorial we owe to those 52 – and to the 24,000 people who died of hunger today – is to recognise each individual tragedy, understand the scale of the multiplier, and to be moved: not simply to tears, but to action.