Saturday, July 09, 2005

Ian McEwan on the Reality of Terror

You're not likely to find a more beautifully written piece of prose on the recent terrorist attack in London than Ian McEwan's New York Times editorial, dated Friday, June 8. In it he focuses not on the identity of the terrorists, the mechanisms they used to disrupt the lives of Londoners, or any of the other myriad factual details that have filled new stories in the hours and days since the bombings. Instead, he's interested in revealing the underpinnings of our psyches.

A year ago my bosses, a married couple with two young boys, left Washington to run our company from their new home in Ashland, Oregon. I can't be certain, but I think their plan to retreat from Washington was set in motion in the long hours following the terrorist attacks here in September 2001. I recall one of them saying that buried not too far below the surface of her consciousness was the anticipation of another such attack. She said she couldn't relax, couldn't let her guard down, couldn't ever really feel at ease living in this city.

McEwan's editorial reminded me that I too, somewhere in my subconscious, share those feelings of dread. I like to tell myself that my life hasn't changed, but more and more I see that it's an attitude of life-preserving, even sanity-preserving, defensive posturing. This evening while I was at the gym, I caught myself looking out the large windows considering the effects of a terrorist attack on the freeway that runs east and west through southeast Washington and its neighborhoods, one of which is my own. Four years ago, such thoughts would never have occurred to me.

I don't want to suggest that I'm obsessed with these kinds of thoughts. And I'm not packing my bags to leave town for a rural retreat. All I'm trying to say is that there's an undercurrent of anxiety running through my psyche. Read McEwan's piece. He articulates with far greater eloquence where we are these four years later, and, for Londoners, four days past.

July 8, 2005

The Surprise We Expected



THE mood of a city has never swung so sharply. On Wednesday there was no better place on earth. After the victory of the Olympic decision in Singapore, Londoners were celebrating the prospect of an explosion of new energy and creativity; those computer-generated images of futuristic wonderlands rising out of derelict quarters and poisoned industrial wastelands were actually going to be built.

The echoes of rock and roll in Hyde Park and its wave of warm and fundamentally decent emotions were only just fading. In Gleneagles, Scotland, the Group of 8 summit meeting was about to address at least - and at last - the core of the world's concerns, and we could take some satisfaction that our government had pushed the agenda. London was flying and we moved confidently about the city - the paranoia after Sept. 11 and Madrid was mostly forgotten and no one had second thoughts about taking the tube. The "war on terror," that much examined trope, was an exhausted rallying cry, with all the appearance of a moth-eaten regimental banner in a village church.

But terror's war on us opened another front on Thursday morning. It announced itself with a howl of sirens from every quarter, and the oppressive drone of police helicopters. Along the Euston Road, by the new University College Hospital - a green building rising above us like a giant surgeon in scrubs - thousands of people stood around watching ambulances filing nose to tail through the stalled traffic into the casualty department.

The police were fanning out through Bloomsbury, closing streets at both ends even as you were halfway down them. The machinery of state, a great Leviathan, certain of its authority, moved with balletic coordination. Those rehearsals for a multiple terrorist attack underground were paying off.

In fact, now the disaster was upon us, it had an air of weary inevitability, and it looked familiar, as though it happened long ago. In the drizzle and dim light, the police lines, the emergency vehicles, the silent passers-by appeared as though in an old newsreel film in black and white. The news of the successful Olympic bid was more surprising than this. How could we have forgotten that this was always going to happen?

The mood on the streets was of numb acceptance, or strange calm. People obediently shuffled this way and that, directed round road blocks by a whole new citizens' army of "support" officials - like air raid wardens from the last war. A man in a suit pulled a fluorescent jacket out of his briefcase and began directing traffic with snappy expertise. A woman, with blood covering her face and neck, who had come from the Russell Square tube station, briskly refused offers of help and said she had to get to work. Groups gathered impassively in the road, among the gridlocked traffic, listening through open windows to car radios.

On television, the news programs were having trouble finding the images to match the awfulness of the event. But this was not, or not yet, a public spectacle like New York or Madrid. The nightmare was happening far below our feet. Everyone knew that if the force that mangled the bus in Tavistock Square was contained within the walls of a tunnel, the human cost would be high, and the rescue appallingly difficult.

Down the far end of a closed-off street we saw emergency workers being helped into breathing equipment. We could only guess at the hell to which they must descend, and no one seemed to want to talk about it.

In Auden's famous poem, "Musée des Beaux Arts," the tragedy of Icarus falling from the sky is accompanied by life simply refusing to be disrupted. A plowman goes about his work, a ship "sailed calmly on," dogs keep on with "their doggy life."

In London yesterday, where crowds fumbling with mobile phones tried to find unimpeded ways across the city, there was much evidence of the truth of Auden's insight. While rescue workers searched for survivors and the dead in the smoke-filled blackness below, at pavement level men were loading vans, a woman sold umbrellas in her usual patch, the lunchtime sandwich makers were hard at work.

It is unlikely that London will claim to have been transformed in an instant, to have lost its innocence in the course of a morning. It is hard to knock a huge city like this off its course. It has survived many attacks in the past.

But once we have counted up our dead, and the numbness turns to anger and grief, we will see that our lives here will be difficult. We have been savagely woken from a pleasant dream. The city will not recover Wednesday's confidence and joy in a very long time. Who will want to travel on the Underground once it has been cleared? How will we sit at our ease in a restaurant, cinema or theater? And we will face again that deal we must constantly make and re-make with the state - how much power must we grant Leviathan, how much freedom will we be asked to trade for our security?

Ian McEwan is the author, most recently, of "Saturday."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company