Monday, July 11, 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, London Can Take It

From the July 18, 2005 issue:
Pluck vs. defeatism after the bombs.
by Christopher Hitchens 07/18/2005, Volume 010, Issue 41


If one must have cliché and stereotype (and evidently one must) then I would nominate the sturdy phlegmatic Londoner as the stock character who deserves to survive for at least another generation. Woken in the dark on the early morning of 7 July, and given the news that I and all British people had been expecting for some time, I made haste to turn on the television and was confronted at once by a man in his 30s with a shirt-front coated in blood. He was bleeding from his scalp, but was quite evenly telling his excited interviewer that "the gentleman next to me"--who was slightly off-screen--might be a superior witness since he had seen more of the actual flash and bang.

Further vox populi encounters disclosed an identical, almost camera-ready, ability to emulate the stoic forebears. I was cynically thinking, yes, that's all very well, but I can imagine panic and nightmare in the "tube" underneath King's Cross station, when I received an email from a teacher at King's College who had been caught up in the most hideous of the underground train bombs. He recounted the almost pedantic willingness of citizens to make way and say "after you" as the doors finally opened and as emergency staff made an appearance on the platforms. As anyone who regularly uses Edgware Road station, or anyone who goes to soccer matches, can attest, Londoners don't normally behave this politely, so again I assume that there is a subliminal script that so to speak "kicks in" when things get nasty.

Much of this elusive script is based on Noel Coward's sentimental ditty "London Pride," which was dusted off and given a fair old revival in the press on the following morning. Nobody who has read any serious account of life under the Nazi blitz can believe a word of it. Between 1940 and 1945, Londoners ran away, panicked, sent their children off to the country with labels around their necks, trampled each other in the rush to make tube stations into air-raid shelters (which the government at first refused to allow) and blamed Jews for jumping queues and hoarding goods. The rich moved complainingly into well-fortified hotels, and the police and firemen helped themselves to the contents of bombed or abandoned homes. Toward the end of the war, as guided missiles began to rain down from Germany, morale became very bad indeed. Read, if you like, Stephen Spender's account of being a fireman, or any selection of George Orwell's wartime "London Letters" to Partisan Review.

For all that, both men did develop an admiration for the essential toughness and humor of the Londoner. And at least it could be said that one note was almost never struck in those days. There were no serious demands for capitulation. But last Thursday the blood wasn't dry on the wall of the British Medical Association in Bloomsbury, with the lower stairway covered in body parts, before the call for surrender was being raised.

First out of the trap was George Galloway, the renegade Member of Parliament who has been Saddam Hussein's chief propagandist in Britain. Within hours of the atrocities, he had diagnosed their cause, or causes. These included the presence of British troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, the photographs from Abu Ghraib, and the state of affairs at Guantanamo. This can only mean that Galloway knows what was in the minds of the bombers, and knows that it was these subjects (and not, say, the Wahhabi hatred of unveiled women, or their fury at the liberation of East Timor) that had actually motivated the attacks. If he really knows that much about the killers, he should be asked to make a full disclosure of his sources to Scotland Yard. If he doesn't know, he should at least have waited until the blood was dry before opening his ugly mouth. Scant chance of the latter.

Galloway is an open supporter of the other side in this war, and at least doesn't try very hard to conceal the fact. Far more depressing are the insincere and inauthentic statements made by more "mainstream" types. The mayor of London, Ken Livingstone--another Blair-hater and another flirter with any local Imam who can bring him a few quick votes--managed to say that the murders were directed at "the working class," not the "powerful." That's true enough, but it doesn't avoid the implication that a jihadist bomb in, say, the Stock Exchange would have been less reprehensible. Another dismal statement, issued by the Muslim Council of Britain in concert with something called "Churches Together in Britain and Ireland," got as far as proclaiming that "no good purpose can be achieved by such an indiscriminate and cruel use of terror." This is to say too much and too little. It still hints that the purpose might be ill-served by the means. Further, it fails as an ecumenical statement in that it was evidently not submitted to Britain's large Jewish community for ratification. Why do I think that there were some in both the Muslim and Christian leaderships who thought that, in their proud "inclusiveness," they didn't need to go quite that far?

On the other hand, I must say that the leadership of "Imaan," a "social support group for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Muslims," managed to issue a condemnation that was not shaded or angled in any way, and consisted of a simple, unequivocal denunciation and a statement of solidarity with the victims. That's the stuff. At last, the Churchill touch!

"London can take it!" That's what the patriotic proles are supposed to have yelled from the bomb-sites when Churchill toured the battered East End. London can indeed take it. It is a huge and resilient city, and if there were ten thousand jihadist guerrillas operating full time within its precincts, they could scarcely make a dent before they were utterly defeated. Once I had guiltily assured myself of the safety of my own daughter, I allowed myself to think that the long-awaited attack had not been as bad as many of us had expected. It was planned to be worse, and the next assault may be worse still. The tube stations selected for the mayhem show beyond doubt that the perpetrators must have expected to kill quite a number of Muslims, just as their co-thinkers have been doing in Kabul and Baghdad.

But another reflection now deposes the preceding one. In 2001 there was an enemy to hit back at, and some business to conclude with the Taliban. Since then, there has been unfinished business with Saddam Hussein and his notorious fedayeen. But from now on, we must increasingly confront the fact that the war within Islam is also a war within Europe. It's highly probable that the assassins of 7 July are British born, as were several Taliban fighters in the first round in Afghanistan. And the mirror image also exists. Many Muslims take the side of civilization and many European fascists and Communists are sympathetic to jihad.

These are not the bright, clear lines that many people fondly imagine to be heritable from a heroic past. But the nature of the enemy is somewhat similar. Like the fascists that they are, the murderers boast that they love death more than we love life. They imagine that this yell of unreason is intimidating and impressive. We shall undoubtedly go forward and put these grave matters to the proof but, meanwhile: Death to them and Long Live London!

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.

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