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How 7/7 changed the way Britain mourns victims of terrorism

The 7/7 memorial in London. EPA/Andy Rain

Tucked into the south-east corner of Hyde Park in London, 52 stainless steel pillars have stood since July 7, 2009. These make up the official memorial for the victims of the London bombings of 2005 – an unobtrusive testament of which many people are unaware. Each pillar purposefully contains slight individual characteristics to symbolise the individuality of each life lost on the London transport network during 7/7.

Compared to the gaping wounds that tear into the earth at Ground Zero, in the form of Michael Arad’s Reflecting Absence design, the British might consider their memorial reaction to the London bombings as understated.

We might contemplate London’s memorial in the context of British historical familiarity with political violence and a steadfast determination to just get on with it, with little fuss.

We might think the memorial represents a continuity of historical approach when dealing with bombings, while also remaining respectfully apolitical in its simple, victim-oriented design.

But on many of these points, we would be wrong. The 7/7 pillars actually represent a dramatic shift in British memorial culture.

Britain had never built a memorial to people who died in a peacetime bomb attack before 7/7. The memorial marks a change in the way we remember the victims of political violence. The 52 victims of the London train and bus bombs are incorporated into a symbolic steel design, perpetually asserting and reminding visitors of their loss. This is a political representation of unending grief in an era of supposedly unending terror.

A nation of plaque lovers

Before the War on Terror, Britain did not build memorials to the victims of terrorist attacks. Even though dozens people died in the long campaign of bombings associated with the conflict in Northern Ireland, their loss has not been marked in this way. A memorial has never been erected in their names.

A discreet memorial in Manchester. John Whalebone, CC BY

British history is instead replete with plaques. The Birmingham pub bombings of 1974, which killed 21 people, are marked with a simple plaque inside the grounds of the city cathedral. Similarly the IRA’s Brighton hotel bombing, which was aimed at assassinating the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, at the Conservative Party’s 1984 annual conference, was met with a reconstruction of the Brighton Grand Hotel and, again, a simple plaque in the lobby in honour of the five people who died.

More recently, the enormous Manchester bomb of 1996 (which destroyed the commercial centre of the city) was commemorated with a plaque on a postbox that survived the explosion.

In fact, the memorial culture of the US used to follow a similar pattern. The 259 victims of Pan Am flight 103, which was bombed en route to New York in 1998, would have received no memorial – but their families eventually persuaded authorities to build a cairn in Arlington cemetery.

Similarly the first attack on the World Trade Center received a modest memorial in the form of a fountain placed between the twin towers on the plaza.

The changing face of memorial

It was the Oklahoma bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in 1995 that opened the era of mega-memorial culture. And in the aftermath of 9/11, that culture grew and grew.

In Oklahoma, an enormous $29m memorial plaza and museum were built on the site of the attack, in which 168 people died. Close to $1bn was spent on permanent symbols of loss, tragedy and resilience in Manhattan.

The memorial at Ground Zero in New York. bnhsu, CC BY-SA

Yet there is no great divergence between the number of people killed in Oklahoma and on Pan Am 103, so why the divergence in memorial response? Nor is there great divergence between the numbers killed in the London bombings and those killed in the Birmingham attacks, but there is clearly something quite different about how their deaths have been marked, even if the 7/7 memorial doesn’t quite reach New York or Oklahoma standards.

The change in the way tragedies of this kind are commemorated started with Oklahoma but became standard during the War on Terror. It was at this point in history that the US lost its Cold War narrative. Its existential enemy was gone and, with it, an anchoring point for American national identity.

It was at this point, unsurprisingly, that terrorist attacks attained new hyperbolic significance. More than a loss of innocent life, they became attacks perpetrated by an apocalyptic enemy of civilisation. Terrorism became the new global threat against which national, and civilised, identities could be juxtaposed.

Memorial culture changed to accompany this shift in identity rhetoric. Plaques would no longer suffice to commemorate events of global significance. Instead expensive designs are commissioned in the imagery of the endless war on terror, where the deaths of commuters are re-imagined as heroic losses in an eternal struggle between good and evil.

The transatlantic relationship between Britain and the US has meant that the UK does not just follow America to war – it also shares in the constitution of post-Cold War Western identity. Terrorism rocketed up the global agenda as the most prominent threat after 2001, so despite a long familiarity with political violence, Britain’s memorial culture changed to incorporate new identity dynamics.

Bad guys kill civilians and we are not bad guys – so memorials serve to mourn those innocent dead while also performing our civilised identity (as compared with the figure of the terrorist).

This is again being seen in the British government’s response to the terrorist attacks in Tunisia. David Cameron has not only promised a memorial for the 30 British people who died when a gunman attacked a beach in Sousse on June 26, but another to honour all British people killed in overseas terrorist incidents.

Someone’s missing

Despite all this, there is no space for one victim of July 2005 in the official memorial landscape of London. The death of Jean Charles de Menezes at the hands of overzealous counter-terrorism firearms officers (the Brazilian was shot seven times in the head at Stockwell tube station two weeks after 7/7) does not fit with the imagery of the good fight against terror. Good guys don’t murder innocent Londoners.

A family affair. Far Closer, CC BY

The De Menezes family have organised a tribute to Jean Charles at Stockwell but there cannot be an official memorial to the innocent 53rd victim, it seems. And neither is there space for a memorial to the millions of civilians killed in the wars fought “against terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. Because the identity dynamic of the War on Terror requires us to forget the innocent who have died at the hands of our states.

So even if the 7/7 memorial is tucked in a quiet spot, and even if it doesn’t compare with its equivalent in New York, it is no quiet apolitical statement of grief. The emergence of permanent memorials to victims of terror represents a global shift that is being continued and even expanded after the recent events in Tunisia.

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