Walking to the center of London late last Thursday morning, I found myself again on Third Avenue in New York City, walking downtown one sunny September afternoon in 2001. Streams of people were coming the other way, walking, crowding the pavements. In New York, some were weeping, some ash-covered, many shouting into cell phones. In London, there was no ash. The terrible anguish and sadness of that September day resurfaced, and I wept as I walked.
It was similar, and yet not. An American friend, emerging from the Tube on the news that power surges had shut down the system, saw crowds on the streets of Victoria. It’s just like 9/11, she thought.
The realization of murder was much the same. Initial disconcerting reports: My sister calls saying there were explosions on the Underground, but apparently not terrorism. In New York, my ambassador’s driver (I was then a British diplomat at the United Nations) told us an aircraft had accidentally hit the World Trade Center. Then the awful truth emerges over the day. Collapsing buildings and buried explosions: Something horrible has happened, very close by, in places I have walked and traveled since I was a child.
In both places, there is a strange miasmic sense of another reality. Groups of people drifting around; the city unnaturally silent but for the wail of sirens and upset voices. But in New York, it was weirder. No one had expected it. Few had heard of al-Qaida. No one imagined that suicide bombers could fly planes into the World Trade Center.
In London, what happened had been imagined, often. The police and government were prepared. Exercises had practiced this very scenario—the Tube was an obvious target. And though practiced and prepared, the shock was much the same. It seems that there is not much that can prepare anyone for death.
There were other similarities: Our leaders were sonorous but out of touch. Bush’s infamous and distracted appearance at some airbase in the Midwest. Blair was more composed, but somehow his Churchillian words—”our determination to defend our values”—struck a hollow note. Perhaps, as for Bush, it was his location. Safely ensconced behind thousands of police officers at the G-8 Summit in Scotland, he could not share the awful and overpowering flesh-and-blood vulnerability suddenly felt in London. Perhaps it was that it was simply too early to put shape or words to what this event was about. It was not, and is not, clear who committed the crime.
As in New York, our mayor, Ken Livingstone, seemed closer to his city, even if he too was detached (in Singapore, for the Olympics decision). He spoke of ordinary people, not principles or values or nations. He spoke of the heterogeneous London: Jew, Christian, Muslim, atheist, wounded by the assault. He, after all, is a Londoner, too. And at times like this, this seemed to matter.
London even had its Rudy Giuliani, in fact the Rudy Giuliani, and I for one was glad to see him, even if his evocation of the Battle of Britain (didn’t he mean the Blitz?) was wide of the mark. It’s the thought that counts. The spirit of World War II feels distant to most Londoners and is perhaps more comforting to outsiders or newspaper headline writers. To those of us here, surviving rail strikes or IRA bombs are the experiences that provide some, if not enough, instruction. In this huge and diverse city, it’s always hard to claim what “the city” or “people” are feeling. Who can say?
Other small likenesses: an immediate if sadly fleeting sense of solidarity. People catch others’ eyes and smile. Small talk is made in public places, like trains and bus stops, where before there was silence. E-mails and phone calls flood in to check on our welfare. American friends are hugely and touchingly solicitous. They remind me of the one emotion that transcended all others, including vengeance, hate, and anger after the Twin Towers fell: compassion.
I lived on New York’s Union Square during that time. It was a gathering place for grief and remembrance. For weeks afterward, people would sing and light candles or pray. London does not yet have its Union Square; perhaps it will. But it already has the heartbreaking photocopied posters of the missing unaccounted for since the attacks.
In New York, the numbers appalled. The posters and the grief were everywhere. In London, already a more diffuse and spread-out city, there is no locus, no center for what happened. The violence is mostly invisible underground. There is not likely to be a place of homage, a London Ground Zero. And the scale, of course, is so much less, thank goodness.
9/11 changed the world. Its massive and traumatizing horror gave birth to the “global war on terror.” The world from Washington, and thus in Western eyes, was reframed. London will not reframe anything. It will merely reaffirm, for ill or good, our governments in their convictions. At times like this, when reflection is most needed, doubt will be belittled. Firm jaws and resolution will not suffer criticism.
But the most pressing similarity is the least political. What reminds and affects the most is the simplest: the terrible stories of injury and pain; the courage and kindness of police, medics, and firemen; and above all the agony and closeness of death and loss. Like the bodies falling from the Twin Towers, the blood on the walls of the building where the No. 30 bus blew up is real.