Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
July 9th, 2005

London Calling

An American walks the streets after the bombing


London July 8, 2005
For the second time in four years a “terrorist” group has attacked civilians in my city. On September 11th I watched black clouds rising from lower Manhattan as I walked to work in Brooklyn. Yesterday at 8:51 a.m., an unknown group attacked civilians in London, my home for the summer.

The police have confirmed that within 50 minutes, there were four explosions: three in the subway system and one in a bus. So far, at least 50 people have been killed and over 700 people have been injured – some so seriously that they lost limbs. But the reaction that I have seen from Londoners has been very different from what I saw in New York on September 11th.

For most of yesterday, my view of the attack was through my computer and TV in the communications department of CARE International UK. I arrived at 8:30 am, before the explosions and before the city locked down the subway and bus system.

Colleagues from other departments packed our room at noon to watch Prime Minister Tony Blair’s first statement. A few came back for televised updates. All of us spent parts of the day calling and e-mailing, asking or answering questions about family, friends, ourselves and colleagues who had not come to work.

When I left the building at 5:30 though, it was as if there had been no attack. I work on the south side of the Thames River, near Blackfriars Bridge, across the river from St Paul‘s Cathedral. Usually I take the subway and then a bus to get to where I’m staying at Allen Hall Seminary, near Battersea Bridge in Chelsea (a neighborhood on the north side of the Thames). Yesterday the subway was closed.

So I walked across Blackfriars, along the Thames and toward the Westminster parliament building, Big Ben and home. Some things looked unusual–there were more people than normal walking from their workplaces and the lines for boats were fuller–but this was not New York on 9/11.

September 11th consumed New York. That day, people walked around with the blank expression of shock and loss. The city’s usual energy seemed muted for a long while and for weeks New Yorkers focused their conversations on September 11th.

The Londoners that I saw yesterday seemed no different than the people I had seen since my arrival in mid-May. Expressions and discussions were the same. People were biking and jogging for exercise. Tourists were strolling and having their pictures taken in front of the famous London skyline. Pub-goers were laughing and enjoying themselves. A visitor would not have seen people reflecting on the tragedy that had occurred just eight and a half hours before.

Although I was surprised by the response, the fact of the matter is the scale of yesterday’s attack was smaller than September 11th and I was not near the bomb sites. In addition, historically speaking Londoners have been on the receiving end of their share of bombing with the Germans during World War II and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. All of these possibilities seemed like reasonable explanations and besides, different people deal with tragedy in different ways.

I couldn’t help it, I was looking through my experience as a New

Yorker and someone whose work, first on Iraq (lobbying against U.S.-driven economic sanctions and the 2003 invasion) and now globally (as a summer communications officer in an international relief and development organization), has featured killing and callousness.

Because of the work I do, many of my own thoughts after the attack were concerned with how it would impact British Muslims inside and outside London. A group identifying itself as Muslim and linked to al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility on a website. Muslim immigrants and converts have been a part of London communities for a long time. One in seven Londoners is Muslim and Britain‘s two million Muslims are three per cent of the British public. But the risk of hate crimes and government profiling is still real.

With all this racing through my mind as I walked through the streets of London yesterday, I held the rosary beads a priest friend recently brought back for me from his pilgrimage to Lourdes—a Mecca of sorts for those who seek healing. As a new Catholic, I am still learning about the rosary but even without reciting the prayers I still felt comforted simply holding it. Like the emergency workers who cared for yesterday’s victims, the beads and crucifix were physical reminders of God’s presence in our lives. It is easier to see God when human beings act like Jesus. Our challenge as Catholics is to struggle to see and follow God when people (including ourselves) fail to live like Him.

The Author : Nathaniel Hurd
Nathaniel Hurd is a 28-year-old graduate student at Columbia University's School of Internationaland Public Affairs. He just completed an internship in London interning as a communications officer at CARE International UK. From 1999-2004 he lobbied, consulted and researched on UN and US Iraq policy.
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