Pedaling hard through the July rain showers in yellow and black waterproofs -- picture a damp wasp -- circumnavigating police exclusion zones and exchanging garbled words with cops to find the "quickest way to get to the City." Who is this psycho heading toward the explosions? There isn't time to explain that this is my own private nightmare, playing out exactly as I have imagined it dozens of times. "When," not "if," we had been told by police and politicians. One day the call would come -- and to me personally. It came today. So now I am zig-zagging through side streets, around King's Cross, St. Pancras, Holborn and the splendor of Lincoln's Inn Fields, toward the River and St. Paul's Cathedral. Toward the terror zone.
You head toward the smoke and the dust and the bodies if your son goes to school in the City of London. If your son rides the subway early every morning with City workers -- dealers, brokers, analysts -- into London's financial district. If his destination, in short, would be a terrorist's bulls-eye. I had imagined dozens of times the day of the long-anticipated strike against London -- most likely in the morning rush hour, most likely centered on the Square Mile of the City, most likely underground. Only a crude calculation of risk quelled my shudders.
My cellphone network was down. Land-line attempts to reach the school met with a heart-stopping busy tone. No news. Finger now trembling over the panic button. Best hope: The strikes were an hour later than I had believed with near certainty they would be whenever they came. If you intended a symbolic second strike at the Western Capitalist Hegemony you would set your timer to 7:45 -- City guys arrive at their desks early. Louis also arrives at school early -- only so that he can kick a ball around the yard before he is reluctantly obliged to ingest Latin grammar, the history of the English Civil War and algebra. Different causes, same risk. So these strikes were strangely timed, just after 8:50 a.m. after the gold-rush but before the 9:30 a.m. watershed when cheaper tickets start selling on London's hopelessly overcrowded public transport system. Who were the intended targets? Shop and office workers? Tourists?
From the first I never believed the white lie. I still believe it was just that, the early reports that cautiously invoked a "power surge" as a likely cause of three separate explosions on the tube network. Three?! Was anyone fooled? I doubt it. Certainly not after pictures of the red London double-decker bus appeared on the live TV news broadcasts, its roof ripped off like a tin lid. A white lie to stem panic. But after the bus the game was up. We all knew. This is our Ground (sub?) Zero. And its number shall be 7/7.
No narrative conceit, no convenient evasion of the drama-quenching truth here. I did -- finally -- get through to my son's school before I left home. "Name?" demanded a voice at the end of the line. I told her. "Class?" 2E. "In!" snapped the voice. "We're keeping all the boys here for now." Can I come to collect him? "I won't stop you."
It had been a bizarre 24 hours. Only the day before I had returned from Beirut, where I'd been filming in Hezbollah strongholds and Palestinian refugee camps and with Al Manar, Hezbollah's own Iranian-funded TV station, for a BBC documentary I am currently making about terrorism and TV. The BBC had made a terrific fuss about security, insisting on daily check-in calls from the city where once Western hostages were shackled to radiators or moved between underground car parks for years -- their well-being and circumstances a big black hole -- no video appeals, no cages, no beheadings, no news of any kind. Now I am back home in London to find that terror has come to town.
At the sight of St. Paul's dome (smoky symbol of London's spirit of resistance during the wartime Blitz) I allowed myself to wonder if I was overreacting. I knew Louis was safe. But what about a second wave of attacks? What if another bomb were even now ticking under the Millennium Bridge, right next to the school? No time to lose.
In the school foyer several teachers directed a fleet of schoolboy monitors to retrieve students from classrooms and reunite them with anxious parents. Louis appeared quickly, having, he said, immediately spotted my bicycle manacled to a sightseeing bench overlooking the Thames. Several other North London boys, and another parent, Mark, appeared and our small posse began the long walk home, navigating through side streets ("Away from tube stations and landmark buildings, don't you think?" said Mark) and toward our zip code, NW3. The streets were crowded but quiet -- the slightly muffled sound of shoe leather on sidewalk as thousands of people padded home without the usual accompaniment of roaring car, truck and bus engines. The sun was shining by the time we reached the Regent's Park. It was (almost) a pleasant walk past the magnificent neoclassical Nash facades topped by magnolia-and-blue friezes. At Camden Town, by mid-afternoon, shop and office workers were seizing the opportunity for a short day and dropping into bars for a collective snifter on the way home.
Today the death toll has climbed to more than 50; everyone knows it could have been so much higher. An ironic (kind of) blessing? A cloud with a silver lining? The newspaper columnists have all opined: "A radical mood swing" (after the Olympic euphoria of Wednesday and the Live 8 spectacular of the weekend), Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian calls it; "Islam does not sanction such murder," says a spokesman from one of the moderate Islamic organizations; "normality is the only civilized response to terror," says a seasoned commentator in the Daily Telegraph -- reflecting the "carry-on-regardless" spirit of defiance that our political leaders tell us will send the terrorists a clear message: We're still here. You cannot win.
So far only one article has raised my temperature -- from a Brit writing for the Nation magazine. "It's not yet clear whether we'll hate Blair less or hate him more for putting us at greater risk by following Bush to Iraq," writes Maria Margaronis. Wrong, Maria. It is already quite clear. Tony Blair's performance yesterday was faultless. As before (Princess Diana's death, 9/11 itself), Blair has an unerring ability to meet defeat (and triumph, for that matter) with perfect pitch. His words and his mood reflect something genuinely national and shared at such moments, despite (or because of) Britain's -- and especially London's -- now well-understood and largely accepted ethnic and cultural diversity. Tony Blair will gain from this -- a very unwelcome boost no doubt, but a boost nonetheless. It is true that Britain, like the U.S., is deeply divided about the war on Iraq. But at this time, those divisions are largely suspended. The noisy but numerically irrelevant caucus that will, no doubt, seek to blame Britain's presence in Iraq, Tony Blair, George Bush, indeed almost anyone except the bombers themselves for this horror -- those who inhabit this topsy-turvey moral maze will be largely ignored and, if silently, scorned by most of us.
I am reminded of the words of an old American friend of mine, a TV cameraman -- a Vietnam-era shooter now living in Hong Kong with his third wife. Marvin would always say: "You know, you can break the Brits, but you can't bend them!" Too right, Marvin.