I have a lot to tell you about the events of this last week. My plan today was to write up my notes on the George Clooney appearance qua briefing; yesterday’s afternoon protests in Edinburgh; the Wolfowitz speech on trade to the German Marshall Fund; and the mixed reaction I had to last night’s Murrayfield Geldof/Bono concert. I will yet do those posts, but priorities suddenly shifted today.
As I strolled toward the departure gate at Edinburgh airport this morning with two hours to spare before our scheduled departure to Heathrow, I was engrossed in thinking about how best to convey the wild ride of the last few days.
And then I glanced up at a television monitor and my heart sank. Bombs, multiple bombs, in London. People dead.
As I got to the gate area, everyone was crowded around, watching the television in stunned silence, while policeman with machine guns soberly stood guard nearby. It suddenly felt like 9/11.
Early reports had 90 dead. The latest numbers I’m hearing here are 38 dead; 50 in critical condition; and 700 wounded to some degree.
When we finally did reach London much later in the afternoon, a group of us jumped in a cab to try to reach the city, despite warnings that the roads were impassable. We sped toward the city on the M4 and the A40, however, without any difficulty. Those trying to get out of the city were not so lucky and faced bumper to bumper traffic.
Our driver did his best to accomodate his anxious American journalist passengers who kept asking him to turn the radio up louder. Jon, a journalist with KOMO Radio, filed two posts on the phone from the cab. We listened for awhile to a local news call-in show where the female host in her most soothing voice kept trying to steer the conversation toward group consolation.
A caller named Colin was having none of it. “If it weren’t for Tony Blair and George Bush,” he said angrily, “we wouldn’t be in this situation.”
We were going to hear a lot of this sentiment in the hours ahead.
Still, we sped past a soccer field on our left, a group of shirtless little boy played soccer happily. Life as usual.
Finally, we reached the Queen Elizabeth the Mother Hospital in Paddington where some of the victims had been taken. It was quiet and calm, but definitely not life as usual, with police guarding the entrance and a gaggle of reporters camped out across from the entrance.
The Edgware Underground Tube station was only a few blocks away, so we set off on foot. As we neared the site, the police presence was strong, as expected. The crowds were not.
A steady stream of observers did stop to look and photograph the barricaded street. But mostly, the feel in the air was one of stoic calm.
Greg Beals, of New York Newsday and I decided to try the Hilton across the street from the barricades to see what the day had wrought for them. In today’s only (extremely) hostile encounter, a manager summarily kicked me out. As I left, a security agent crossed the lobby and said, “I understand you’ve been taking pictures,” and appeared ready to take my camera. I hastened to show him that I had not, in fact, taken any photographs of the Hilton. Hooray for digital.
Directly outside I saw Davy D, a hip-hop DJ from Oakland. Together we went over to interview a group of young men standing together by the barricades. After they recognized Davey, they were happy to speak right up. We asked them why everyone seemed to be reacting so calmly and they all just shrugged. One said: “I was expecting this — sooner or later it was going to happen. I knew something was going to happen.” Then he continued: “Everyone thinks they know why it happened. . .”
Well, because George Bush and Tony Blair need to make it easier to go to war.
Davey and I glanced at each other. The interview moved on to other topics. Finally, as we wrapped up, I stopped the young man, just to clarify his comment. Did he mean, I asked, to imply that there was some sort of conspiracy by the government involved in today’s attacks? Just to generate support for the war?
“Definitely,” he said. “Definitely.”
These young men told us something that we heard reported nowhere else: in the aftermath of the attacks, the government shut down the cell phone towers and no one was able to communicate with their phones. This, they said, was “terrifying.” For some time at least, no one was able to find out where their loved ones were.
Next Davey spied two attractive young black women and asked for their reactions. They eyed him warily, but one of them couldn’t resist and blurted out aggressively, “It’s Tony Blair’s fault! They’ve killed 100,000 people — it’s like a boomerang.” Later she repeated this, talking about “killing innocent people” and “invading other peoples’ country . . .”
When we asked her the question about the calm, she shrugged too. “We’re used to it,” she replied. “Americans get patriotic over anything silly.”
We were starting to see a pattern.
I spotted a young woman about my own age and asked if she would talk with me. After initial hesitation, she got warmed up, and ended up repeating many of the same themes the young men had given us, without the conspiracy theories.
She, too, had been expecting to be attacked and was almost relieved. “We were so going to happen,” she said.
As to the calm? Again: “We’re used to it.”
When I first asked her about Tony Blair she was hesitant to assign blame. But as we talked, she became more animated, and finally blurted out: “This is the price we’re paying [for the war in Iraq]. Yes, I guess I do blame [Blair] — makes you bloody angry. . . we’ve killed all those people in Iraq; all those civilians . . . “
I started to wonder if someone had handed out talking points for the day. But how was it that a group of young, male English Muslims, a trendy black woman in her late 20′s, and a 30-something white woman interior designer, were all saying the same thing?
I decided I needed to expand my demographic sample and started looking for the quintessential English gentleman businessman.
Spied him talking on the phone near the barricade and moved in. Warily, he agreed to talk.
No, he wasn’t surprised. “It’s been due to happen. Sooner or later.” He got the talking points, too.
Bu then he pointed out something very interesting that I had noticed only on a subconscious level. “This is the heart of Little Beirut” he said. We were indeed surrounded by people, like the young men, who appeared to be Arab. A strange and exceptionally cold-blooded choice of targets for Al Quaida, even by terrorist standards.
Finally, I asked him the Tony Blair question. He looked at me puzzled: “How can you blame Tony Blair?”
I told him he was the only one all day I’d found who didn’t.
He frowned. “Interesting,” he said. And walked off.
As our group re-assembled and walked back toward the hospital in a sudden grey London rain, we compared notes. We all agreed that we were observing a striking difference between English and American reactions to this kind of disaster. Perhaps later the impromptu teddy-bear memorials that characterize our American communal grief in the wake of tragedy will appear.
But, for now, the English we met were putting on the stiff upper lip.
LaShawn Barber’s Corner is asking for ideas.
Jolly Blogger has a ‘thanksgiving’ message.
Evangelical Outpost suggests a Day of Mourning
Captain’s Quarters has insight on London’s Muslims
Crooked Timber has thoughful Open Thread
Wonkette on the “stiff upper lip”
MaxedOutMama has “Isreal Slander”
Small Dead Animals has it right on “community involvement.”
Little Green Footballs: Terrorism Works.
Ever vigilant Mudville Gazette at Open Post.
The Washington Monthly has NON-LESSONS FROM LONDON.
Outside The Beltway quotes MP Galloway ” Bombings Price of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
ProLife Blogs Supporting our friends in London
Bling has more at The Day After