The government resists calls for a public inquiry into last year’s bombings in London, argues Kevin Blowe, because the last thing it wants is scrutiny of the security services or the conduct of the ‘war on terror’ in Britain. Instead, we are offered two minutes of silence and encouragement to rekindle our fears, in the hope that fearful citizens will ask fewer questions about bungled police raids, the death of Jean Charles de Menezes and authoritarian attacks on civil liberties.
National acts of remembrance are rarely without controversy. Think of the Muslim Council of Britain’s boycott of Holocaust Memorial Day because it is ‘not inclusive enough’, or the absence at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday until recently of representatives of the faiths of the thousands of men and women from Commonwealth countries who died in the name of Empire. And what about the call for a memorial day to remember the thousands of victims of the slave trade? The controversy always lies in what exactly these events are for and what message they are supposed to reinforce. And it is precisely because there have been so few voices of dissent about the official two-minutes silence at noon on 7 July, to mark the first anniversary of the London tube and bus bombings, that it is important to ask – what is that we are expected to remember?
The Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has described the two-minute silence as an opportunity to “bring the whole nation together to pay tribute” to those who have died and to the fortitude and courage of those who were injured. Jowell has argued, “It is right that we as a city, and as a nation, come together to reflect on what is still unutterable grief and loss.” But to what end? Few people can have anything but enormous sympathy for the bereaved families of those who were murdered, and the memorial event in Regent’s Park may have provided some small measure of comfort to them in ensuring their loved ones are not forgotten. But a two-minute silence is rather less than they have been demanding, which is a public inquiry into the 7 July bombings. So what is it exactly that the government wants the nation to reflect upon?
At the same time, few people living and working in London will have forgotten the feeling of powerlessness, the frantic telephone calls to loved ones and the shaky camera phone pictures from those trapped in Tube tunnels last July. A paper published in the British Medical Journal in September 2005 found that, in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, 31% of Londoners reported substantial stress and 32% reported an intention to travel less. Who benefits from asking us to relive in minute detail these experiences?
Part of the problem is that much has happened since last July. BBC newsreader Peter Donaldson’s recital in Regent’s Park of the names of all 52 victims of the bombings did not include the name of Jean Charles de Menezes, gunned down by the police at Stockwell station, because the ‘unutterable grief and loss’ of his family does not fit the framing of debate that the government seeks. Last year’s British Medical Journal paper found that Muslim respondents reported significantly more stress than people of other faiths, a situation that the government has exacerbated, through the use of its draconian anti-terrorism laws and by events such as the recent bungled raid in Forest Gate in east London. This is also something that the government would prefer we did not reflect upon.
More and more, the two-minute silence on 7 July looks like another exercise in reactivating our fear, in defining public discussion on how the government conducts the ‘war on terror’ in Britain, not by stopping us from being afraid but by reminding us why we need to be fearful. If that sounds too cynical, then consider this – as 7 July drew nearer, there has been a host of wild stories in the press, usually from unattributed ‘security sources’, claiming everything from attempts by ‘Al-Qaeda sympathisers’ to infiltrate MI5 to the claim that there are 400,000 Muslims in the UK who are “sympathetic to violent world jihad”. Prime Minister Tony Blair has once again attacked moderate Muslims for not doing enough to tackle the problem of extremism in their communities (which any seasoned Blairologist recognise translates as ‘failing to agree with everything the Prime Minister says’). The last two weeks look as carefully constructed to distract attention from the police’s disastrous shooting of an unarmed man in east London as the ’45-minute threat’ of weapons of mass destruction was to try and mislead the public into supporting war in Iraq. And as long as we are encouraged to forget that in reality, terrorists are few in number and that we are more likely to be killed in a traffic accident or even by a lightning strike than by terrorist atrocity, it is possible for MPs like Ilford’s Mike Gapes, the chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, to tell the BBC’s World Service on 2 July the patent nonsense that “Al-Qaeda represents a threat to our democracy” without challenge or a demand for evidence.
Equally, as long as we are encouraged to dwell on the horror of 7 July, the hope must be that we will be less likely to ask too many other questions For example, if Mike Gape’s committee can conclude that detentions without international authority in Guantanamo Bay “work against British as well as US interests”, why does it ignore the detentions in Belmarsh Prison and the introduction of control orders that have the same effect in undermining the way Britain is viewed by the wider world? And by seeking to control the boundaries of discussion, the government must also hope that the public can be encouraged to accept the Prime Minister’s “101% support” for Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair and his assertion that the “necessity and appropriateness of police actions” includes shooting someone who is entirely innocent in a police raid and then refusing to apologise.
It is easy for us in Britain to mock the US and the way that President Bush has managed to successfully limit the possibilities of debate by saying “you are with us or with the terrorists”. But our government is just as guilty of manipulating public discourse. So when Tessa Jowell asks us to “reflect on what is still unutterable grief and loss”, she is not simply asking for two minutes of silence. She is asking for a blank cheque for the government’s actions against the ‘threat of terrorism’.