London is marking ten years since the attacks of July 7 2005, in which 52 people were killed and more than 700 injured by a group of suicide bombers. But far from being “London’s 9/11”, Britain remembers its terror attack rather differently to the US.
While the US spent many years after 2001 contemplating its place in the world – and indeed seeking to export its idea of democracy to other countries, the British were forced to look inward at their own culture. The government of the time was heavily involved in the same War on Terror as the US, but this was a homegrown attack that required a homegrown response.
The 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon near Washington DC seemed to come out of nowhere. The attacks struck central symbols of US global power and cut deep into the American psyche. Many suddenly felt unsafe in their own country.
The events raised fundamental questions about what it means to be an American citizen and in some ways brought the country together after the deep divisions of the Vietnam War.
Analogies were made with Pearl Harbour, since this was an unprovoked attack by a foreign enemy. But for a while, 9/11 also closed down intellectual discussions about the exercise of America’s global power and the causes of terror, as if talking about these issues was somehow to condone what had happened that day.
Up until that moment, war and ethnic conflict was what happened elsewhere. Now the US was at the centre of a new world of global terror. Though many were sceptical at the time, 9/11 did become a watershed moment in the West. It was as if everyone in the US could see themselves as a target, and their sense of security was shattered once and for all. This shaped the way 9/11 was to be remembered and memorialised.
There was a moment of pause. People reflected upon how the US, which was supposed to bring good into the world, could be hated so much that it could be so violently attacked.
The vigils and reflection were soon put aside. President George W Bush, driven by heroic masculinity, was to seek revenge in Afghanistan and Iraq. You were with the US or against it.
A different kind of shock
By 2005, many felt it was only a matter of time before London was hit. After Bali and Madrid and, indeed, New York, London seemed an obvious target, particularly given Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War.
This was not an attack that came out of nowhere. It was already several years into the War on Terror, and people were already concerned about whether the motives for invading Iraq and Afghanistan were just.
This was also a city already accustomed to the threat of terrorist attack. The IRA bombing campaigns of the 1980s and 90s had shaped London life to a certain extent.
But what was long-lasting was the realisation that the young men who had taken so many lives on 7/7 had been brought up in Britain – three of the four attackers were British born and the fourth an early migrant.
They declared war on the UK in homemade videos released after the bombings. This helped create a different kind of remembering. The separate lives being lived by different communities in the UK had been made visible. There were questions about second-generation experiences and a lack of integration between communities.
The London Olympics of 2012 brought a moment of healing, as the city embraced the spirit of multiculturalism – but more recent events have awoken the memories of 7/7.
Because it was young British men who took so many lives in London that day, there are complex feelings about what it is to be British. But where the Americans thought about their own national identity on the global stage, the UK was interrogating relations at home. Young nationals were identifying more with sufferings in foreign lands than with their fellow citizens, and no-one appeared to have noticed.
A decade on, more young men have been lost to the idealism of radical groups abroad. They are fighting in Syria and Iraq but the same questions are being asked back home.
When British values are invoked, they need to be values that can be shared by young British Muslims. We need to remember 7/7 as a warning of what can happen when young men feel bereft of a sense of belonging.