I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic
During the summer, I met up with an Australian friend visiting the UK, and we went for lunch at the Wellcome Institute on Euston Road. At the door, our bags were searched by security staff and as we walked away, she commented, ‘what do they think is going to happen, someone’s going to bomb the place?’
I was so surprised that I didn’t immediately respond, but that throwaway comment has nagged away at the back of my mind ever since. Because for me, it seemed glaringly obvious that that was exactly what they were expecting. I can trot out all the caveats of my anarchist political training – that those security officers examining our bags were also part of a pattern of state control, that their presence was less about keeping people safe and more about instilling in them a sense of fear and threat in order to provide justification for enforcing that control.
On the other hand, I grew up in London in the 1970s and 80s, when IRA bombs were a commonplace. My dad and I, out Christmas shopping, missed the Harrods bomb (1983, 6 dead) by something like 15 minutes. I’m always half-amused by the irritation of foreign visitors at the absence of bins in British railway stations; it annoys me too, but I’m used to it (although, as I understand it, there’s never actually been an explosion from a device left in a railway bin). I remember the assumption when I was a child that if daddy was late home from work, it might be because of a bomb scare, and how when shops were cleared out because of a telephoned threat everyone just rolled their eyes. Business as usual.
And as the political battlegrounds shifted, the bombs came from different places. I was supposed to be visiting my folks in July 2005 when Mum rang to say ‘I guess you won’t be coming down then?’ At work, I hadn’t seen or heard the news, but it was of course the four suicide bombings which are now casually known in Britain as 7/7 (2005, 56 dead, over 700 injured). The scene of my conversation with my Australian friend was just a few minutes walk from the sites of two of the 7/7 attacks – the Russell Square/St Pancras tube bomb which killed 27, and the Tavistock Square bus which killed 14 (all figures include the suicide bombers themselves). Once my sister, who worked just up the road, managed to get through the clogged-up mobile phone network to tell us she was OK, thoughts turned to friends and the grim process of scanning the news as information on the events became clearer.
I’m not entirely sure what my point is with this post. I suppose it’s partly thinking about the different ‘normals’ we grow up with – things I’ve experienced when contrasting the basic responses of Palestinian versus British kids to the same cues, which in different environments acquire such different meanings. Perhaps it’s also still thinking through my experience of Australia and the sense of parochialism and isolation I found in even its biggest cities (although I can understand why this is appealing for many of the generatiosn of immigrants who have ended up there). Australia’s experiences of domestic ‘terrorism’ (yes, I’m being lazy in using that word; feel free to challenge me on it) have been few and far between, and the best-known example was probably engineered by its own security services. Maybe its also linked to my own knowledge that, despite my stated political positions, I still need to engage further with my childhood conditioning on the subject of Northern Ireland and ‘my’ own state’s hideous history there. Or perhaps it’s just the end of the year so I’m taking stock of some of 2012’s events and looking some of those nagging thoughts in the face.