Monday, July 11, 2005


The north wall of my study in Chicago is dominated by an enormous, framed map of the London Underground, of about the same size you would see posted in an actual station. I'll confess to being a bit of a public transit junkie, so the map was one of my most prized souvenirs of a month in London a few years ago--a "research" trip in which Robin did research and I met her for lunch every day, boarding the Northern line at Borough, disembarking at King's Cross, and walking the few blocks to the British Library.

It's a bit hard to look at the map now. I'd had it up on the wall in part as an aid to composition; after I discovered how much of my pleasure in riding the Underground was rolling the station names around in my head, I began a series of poems, later titled "Elephant & Castle," that used Underground station names as its primary source of language. At times it seemed I could glimpse the whole history of England and English in these oddly abstracted place names--grand and evocative, silly at times, at others with an undercurrent of violence I was at a loss to explain.

One American interviewed on CNN noted that the London bombings had happened about the same time of day as the 9/11 attacks; that was certainly part of the psychological sameness for me, waking up to a news anchor's voice intoning when I should have been hearing Oprah. I spent most of Thursday morning watching BBC America and surfing the BBC and Guardian websites, in a muted echo of the same state of long-distance agitation and dull shock that I recall from being on the West Coast in September 2001.

It sickened me that, just hours after the bombings, there was President Bush, speaking less of sadness and sympathy than of endless war, grotesquely using the attacks as an occasion to puff up his own half-hearted efforts on African aid and global warming. By Friday, CNN analysts were speculating in bloodthirsty fashion about which nations the British government would make retaliatory strikes against.

The contrast with the British response couldn't be stronger. A press conference held by London authorities just hours after the attacks was a picture of bureaucratic efficiency, but also of restraint. After one reporter asked a question about the role of "Islamic terrorism" in the attack, a police official did a remarkable thing. He took the reporter to task by saying that he believed "Islamic" and "terrorism" did not belong together in the same sentence; that acts of terrorist violence were not compatible with the tenets of Islam as he understood them; and that police would keep an open mind about the identities of the perpetrators while conducting a thorough investigation.

Though it's hard to say from a distance, Britons seem to be shocked, hurt, determined, defiant--not vengeful.

What can Americans do to show their support? Perhaps the best thing we could do would be to tell our president to listen to the man who has to lead Britain out of this trauma--his one real ally in his war on terror--Tony Blair. Blair brought the G-8 leaders to Scotland with a challenge to double and redouble aid to Africa and to act now against global warming. Really, though, as always, such challenges were directed at us. Bush budged a little, but hardly enough. Americans should answer these attacks not by boasting of our own strengh and resolve, but by joining in full the humanitarian and environmental commitments of a nation that is now suffering in much the same way ours did four years ago.

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