In the late 1990s, I lived in England for three and half years as a graduate student. It was during those heady days of Tony Blair’s rise to power, after nearly two decades of grim Tory rule. For an American liberal like myself, Blair’s election induced déjà vu and nostalgia for the moment of Clinton’s victory in 1992, but that giddiness was tempered with a cynical sense of the inevitable broken idealism to come. I couldn’t predict how it would happen, but only that it would happen. In this respect, Americans were already worldly-wise compared with our transatlantic counterparts, an odd reversal of the classical clichés of the weary European and the wide-eyed American. I remember the excitable student Labour Party activists at Cambridge explaining the concept of the Third Way and the expectation of delayed gratification when it came to the redistribution of wealth. Even then, Blairism was a kind of cult that constantly disguised itself in seemingly unassailable pragmatism—and the cult had true believers, back then.
I returned in the winter of 2005, on the latest of a string of annual visits, to a political landscape transformed by the collapse of public trust in Blair, the Iraq war, and the transport bombings in Madrid and London. Blair was now dubbed “the accidental American,” and mostly loathed for it, but able to maintain power because the opposition was also pro-Iraq. The Conservatives had spent the last few elections fruitlessly cycling through a series of leaders who competed for the public’s derision with a combination of baldness and dreariness. One could write a whole political/cultural thesis on the relationship between hair-loss and impotence in contemporary British Conservative politics: it would be interesting to graph the miserable election results of William Hague (largely bald), Ian Duncan Smith (even balder), and Michael Howard (badly balding), against the amount of forehead and skull they displayed to the public. “Prison works” was one of Howard’s more cheery bon mots as head of the Home Office under John Major. Major, the last Tory success, had no lips, but plenty of hair, and as for Thatcher, well, she was a veritable medusa. (At last, with the mountain-bike riding, balefully chummy David Cameron, the Conservatives have found a genial Bush analogue to Blair’s Clinton act—and Cameron has a full head of hair.)
Any Yankee who has spent more than a few hours in London knows that the sense of encroaching Americanism, so often attacked as the “blanding down” of the indigenous culture, is a bit of an illusion or superficial surface appearance. There’s no danger of anyone turning American anytime soon, and indeed one of the primary delusions of our current foreign policy—that everyone has a “little American,” in Slavoj Zizek’s apt phrase, waiting inside them, dying to experience the joys of unfettered capitalism and free market health care—comes to grief the moment you leave the country, even for Canada or Costa Rica. It is always embarrassing and baffling to see only the very strangest aspects of your culture promoted in other countries. I have in my mind the McDonald’s in Cambridge, which actually has a mock Greek temple made of plaster inside it, looking a bit like the sadly diminutive Stonehenge in the film This is Spinal Tap. Of course, it’s not news that the evidence of rampant Amerification is everywhere increasing—from the overnight mushrooming of the Starbucks chain to the more curious success of the U.S. bookstore Borders, and even the little-brother copycat Guantánamo Bay of the Belmarsh secret detention system.
The displeasure of empire involves the creeping physical sensation that no matter how far you travel you cannot escape yourself. This is, doubtless, true of everyone, but to be an American in this particular place and time makes it even worse. You keep running into little bits of yourself scattered over the entire world. Innocents Abroad? Not anymore. Essentially, the world had a raging teenage crush on America for awhile, but now they’ve gone off and dumped us. Our secret lycanthropy has been exposed by Iraq. We seem normal most of the month, but then the full moon arrives and we just go crazy and the carnage begins. That’s the genius of the 1981 John Landis film An American Werewolf in London viewed as a wry side comment on empire. Americans seem sort of nice and cuddly when you first get to know them, until they’re sinking their teeth into you. We almost seem human at first, so prosperous, fat, and well-meaning. We even talk a little English, the awkward, stilted horror-movie English of vampires, aliens, zombies, pod people, or werewolves. To werewolves, the whole idea of the non-colonized, non-werewolf world is foreign, repugnant, and contemptible.
Perhaps it was possible, back in the late-Clinton, early-Blair years, to pretend that we could all be friends. Not anymore. Lately it seems like the world is getting larger, not smaller, every day, retreating into a kind of shell, retracting into disparate segments and mistrustful tribes rather than the “one were-world” dreamed up by global elites, hyper-capitalists, and the theoreticians of the much-reported end of history in the 1990s.
That was never my experience of the world, and especially not of Britain in particular, where annoyance and resentment is widespread, genuine, deeply ingrained, and at times nasty. Some Americans are all right, but be on the lookout for those liable to suffer a hideous transformation on a lunar cycle, fangs and all. As the owner of a bed and breakfast on the Isle of Skye in Scotland once put the matter to me, thinking he was flattering me greatly, “You’re one of the better ones.” This is the right and proper way to speak to werewolves, if you ever encounter one.
Finsbury Park in North London is my home away from home when I am visiting England. Spelled backwards, the name of the neighborhood is “Krapy Rub Snif.” My partner’s family has a flat nearby, a few blocks away from the now notorious Finsbury Park mosque, widely regarded during the heyday of extremist splinter-groups as a flashpoint for Islamic extremism in the U.K. Finsbury Park, one of the epicenters of what Islamists called “Londonistan,” because of the city’s traditionally generous terms of asylum and allowances for open political activity for those fleeing oppressive regimes, is a curious place. Before the London transport bombings of “7/7,” Americans might have known it only through Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch as nearby the current and future locations of his beloved Arsenal Football Club. On match day, the place is a sea of rowdy jerseys herded between pubs by mounted police. The mob sings in the streets and leaves half-drunk pints on the garden walls of the rows of plain Victorian flats. After a particularly big win (or loss?), the crowd has been known to overturn a bus or two, or set fire to something that had not seemed to offend it.
Finsbury Park itself is a vast, bleak, green void on a small hill next to a railway station. The space is used for summer rock concerts, jogging, and idle daytime boozing amongst the Carlsberg Special Brew Society (“This drink may be unsuitable for non-vagrants,” an online review notes—it cannot legally be called beer because the alcohol content is 9%). The trains come in from Cambridge, East Anglia, and Essex before winding up in King’s Cross, from a distance looking like tiny strips of film going back and forth across a old manual editing board. On the other side of the station, a few minutes’ walk from the mosque, a revivalist Christian group has taken over the Riverside Theatre, putting on a regular dramatic event called “Day of Decision,” which is advertised on billboards with a lightning bolt. All this taken in tandem seems to qualify Finsbury Park as a sort of temporary holding area for enthusiasm bordering on the fervent, a zone of brief gatherings and temporary crowds, the original flash-mobs of football and faith.
In Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, the classic novel of 19th-Century terrorism, the character The Professor is called the “Perfect Anarchist” because of his habit of carrying a small bomb inside his coat at all times, with his finger constantly hovering over the trigger mechanism in his trouser pocket. Should the police ever attempt to arrest him, both parties know that he will blow himself up along with the arresting officers and whatever bystanders happen to be close at hand. His address: “far away in Islington,” the area of North London that includes Highbury Corner and the territory south of Finsbury Park. He lives “in a small house down a shabby street, littered with straw and dirty paper, where out of school hours a troop of assorted children ran and squabbled with a shrill joyless, rowdy clamour.”
In The Secret Agent, a bookshop owner and agent provocateur, Verloc, is put up to performing a fake terrorist atrocity. The target is the Greenwich Observatory. Verloc is forced to do it by a foreign embassy, whose government wants to encourage England to crack down on Anarchist cells. Throughout the book, Verloc is cruelly, constantly, brilliantly, and ironically referred to as “a good man,” despite the fact that his botched plot leads to the death of his retarded brother-in-law, Stevie, who blows himself up accidentally on the way to placing a bomb along the foundations of the Observatory.
Conrad issued a prefatory note to the novel explaining that, when it came to violent Anarchism, he found “its philosophical pretences…unpardonable.” Those pretences, when presented in the novel, however, are presented faithfully. Readers of would-be assassin Alexander Berkman’s real-life Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist will recognize the accuracy of Conrad’s carefully-cultivated terrorist voice. The justification of violence in the name of progress always has the same specious and eternal ring to it, and when one hears the voice of 19th century terrorism, it is unmistakably resonant with the current fantasies offered by Al Qaeda. The Professor’s life sums it all up forever:
Lost in the crowd, miserable and undersized, he meditated confidently on his power, keeping his hand in the left pocket of his trousers, grasping lightly the India-rubber ball, the supreme guarantee of his sinister freedom; but after a while he became disagreeably affected by the sight of the roadway thronged with vehicles and of the pavement crowded with men and women. He was in a long, straight street, peopled by a mere fraction of an immense multitude…They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror, too, perhaps.
Human beings can blow up other human beings only if they are not quite human anymore—if they are already lobotomized living corpses or bugs, dead already in every sense but the soon-to-be literal one. This kind of “power” counteracts feeling “miserable and undersized”—the case of the London transport bombers?
Conrad’s brilliance lies not only in his ironic depiction of the banality of evil, but also in his unwillingness to accept the conventions of the novel of intrigue. The terrorist outrage is not accomplished by terrorists at all, but carried out for the mediocre reason of survival—Verloc doesn’t want to lose his job as a secret agent for the embassy. Conrad also deftly avoids the alternate temptation of making the bogus attack a government conspiracy to justify repression. Instead, it is a foreign power that wants Britain to crack down on its anarchist element and launches the plot in the hopes of causing a domino effect of repressive measures. It is the symbiotic relationship between terrorists and opportunistic politicians—the ability of leaders to push draconian tactics as a solution to evil, and for extremists to thrive in an atmosphere of oppression—that is implied most strongly in the novel.
The London transport bombings of July 7, 2005, were mounted from outside the city, but reports have emerged that the paths of some of the bombers may have crossed in Finsbury Park. Mohammad Siddique Khan, the ringleader of the Leeds bombers, reportedly visited the mosque several times over a span of a few years. The mosque, a somewhat fancy, newly-renovated building with large windows through which one used to be able to catch glimpses of people praying, was whispered to be a terrorist haven even when I was living in Britain nearly seven years ago. Even I, an ignorant American tourist, knew about its reputation pre-September 11; the whispers then were about Yemen. Richard Reid, Zacarias Moussaoui, and a member of the Chechen group that perpetrated the Beslan school massacre were all attendees, it later turned out. In January 2003, an anti-terrorist raid on the mosque revealed a small but provocative cache including a stun-gun and a CS canister. In related raids, traces of and materials for making the deadly poison ricin were discovered in East London flats around the same time. In March 2004, stockpiles of ammonium nitrate fertilizer were found in the suburban London homes of young Britons who, like many in the Leeds cell, were of Pakistani background. The mosque was also a kind of international hostel with around 200 beds; militants as well as the majority, who were probably ordinary pilgrims, could have their mail forwarded there. In the basement, one could learn how to strip and reassemble an AK-47.
Prior to September 11, the mosque’s charismatic preacher was Abu Hamza al-Masri, who had lost his arms and an eye in Afghanistan and gesticulated rather dramatically with metal claws. Eventually, Hamza was banned from the mosque and forced to preach to his followers outside across the street under heavy police presence. More mainstream groups coordinated by the Muslim Association of Britain seized back the mosque, just after my visit, in February, 2005, reopening it with a new imam and attempting to marginalize the extremists, but allegations quickly followed that the new management had its own questionable associations with Hamas. Now, however, the mosque presents a far more welcoming face, and is open to the general public for tours.
In his study Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, the French scholar Gilles Kepel describes how London became Londonistan, a haven for refugees which the majority of radical Islamists had sworn never to attack. As the victorious war in Afghanistan wound down in the early 1990s, many jihadis looked to Europe as a place to develop “new networks for funding, supplies, information, and communication.” Because of its colonial history and its long-standing internal battles over wearing the veil in state schools, France locked down its borders. Britian, which Kepel notes was reeling from the Salman Rushdie fatwa, took the fateful decision to offer asylum to militants from across the globe. “Thus,” Kepel writes, “in the final years of the twentieth century, Great Britain became the axis around which the small world that had coalesced at Peshwar in the 1980s revolved.” The concept of Londonistan was born, with an affectionate corollary: “In return for their hospitality, the militants declared Britain a sanctuary: no act of terrorism was committed there.” The Egyptians in the Al-Jihad movement and the Gamaa Islamiya network mixed uneasily with Saudi salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Tunisian Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique, the Algerian GIA, the Pakistani Jamaat-e-Islami, and the Syrians represented by Omar Bakri Muhammad, who once issued the remarkable proclamation that “Western culture is nothing more than entertainment.” One unusual aspect of the London transport bombings was that the group which planned them was so diverse, including Somalis, ethnic Pakistanis, and even an Anglo-Jamaican convert. This approach reflects the mixing of various extremist groups in European settings, who are bound by ideology rather than national origin.
Many Americans are startled when they discover how different the mainstream conversation about terrorism is in Britain. Americans tended to read the London bombings through the dual lenses of September 11 and our cultural clichés about the British stiff upper lip. It seemed like a good time for journalists to revisit the Blitz, as in the Chicago Tribune story “Letters from London: Keep calm, carry on,” by Charles Leroux, which featured the correspondence of an air raid warden named Norman Whistler Gregory Walker. Walker described how “rescue squads dug into the broken wood and brick [of bombed houses] like dogs, getting people out through the tiny tunnels they made.” The workers had a laconic demeanor: “All right, ma,” they’d keep saying, “we’ll get you out. Don’t worry.”
Easy as such parallels were, these brave monosyllabic men bore little resemblance to the rigorously trained, high-tech anti-terror squads of latter day Euro-government which deployed during the bombings. The much-touted calmness in fact may be, as in so many other areas of British character, a carefully-controlled fiction, or at least the psychological equivalent of a nice cup of tea. An unnerved world discovered this a week later, when another series of bomb attacks failed by a lucky fluke and when, a short time later, a panicked police unit gunned down a hapless and unarmed Brazilian in the subway system on the basis of bad intelligence. If ordinary Britons seemed calm, the government’s hysterical anti-terror measures showed every sign of its being shaken, not stirred; phlegmatic James Bondism this was not.
As Paul Fussell noted in Wartime, his book exploding some of the grand myths of World War II, the kind of buttoned-up silence that characterizes the Greatest Generation perhaps has less to do with quiet resignation than exposure to the massive traumas of economic depression, rationing, bombing, and the inconceivable horror of total war. The notorious reserve, such as it is, might be as much a closely-held national defense mechanism as it is the much-depicted “mustn’t grumble” air of a culture of jaunty blithe spirits.
In his post-bombing essay “Museums of Melancholy” in the London Review of Books, Iain Sinclair gave a different version of the contemporary truth:
London is deafened, red-eyed, traumatised. Making the best of it. We are telling our stories to the camera as a public confession. Victims replay horrifying incidents as a form of exorcism. Accused men are watched and recorded by instruments designed to make no moral judgment. The city is paralysed while contrary fictions struggle for credibility.
For Sinclair, the mask has slipped, and talk has replaced the supposedly iconic British silence. Sinclair’s word “deafened” is key, representing a numbed sensory reaction to an explosion, after which one talks louder, not softer, afraid of not being heard. That was how my British friends reacted on the phone and over email—they wanted to chat about where they were and how they found out, inducing my own memories of September 11 in New York City. The generation of those of us born in the 1970s, it seems, will mature between catastrophes, and these phone calls will presumably become standard operating procedure among rootless cosmopolitans scattered across the world by globalization. “Where were you during the bombing?” might be the question that replaces the resonant passage in William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech that portrays the human condition during the Nuclear Age as one of waiting to be blown up.
Scratch the quickly-floated idea that the post-September 11 age would entail the death of irony. The age of fear will be an age of gallows humor, satire, skepticism, and corrosive sarcasm, of infinite jest to keep us from a heartbreakingly gloomy world-picture. It was the age of America’s first imperial expansion, after all, that unleashed some of Twain’s best work.
During my visit, the Finsbury Park mosque had not yet reopened, and the fate of the Belmarsh detainees was being batted around. In the wake of a decision by the Law Lords that indefinite detention would be unacceptable, some of the detainees were set to be deported, with bilateral “guarantees” that they would not face torture when they returned home. There was a commotion one day, with metal barriers stacked up outside the mosque and bored constables idling in a police van a block off, waiting semi-discreetly to respond to any trouble. An odd slogan—“get free of freedom”—had been painted on a wall another block away from the mosque; only later did I connect the saying with the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Islamist thinker regarded by the American writer Paul Berman as the so-called “philosopher of Al Qaeda.”
When I walked around the corner of the Finsbury Park Station, following the sound of Arabic over a loudspeaker, I found an outdoor gathering at the Islamic Welfare Center, a beehive of activity, with men handing out leaflets outside. The entrance to the place was right beneath a rail bridge that had a giant billboard with a salacious ad for Desperate Housewives hanging on it. When I flipped over the leaflet I’d picked up, the Arabic writing, translated into English, turned out to be nothing more than an advertisement for an employment service.
The neighborhood is comprised of people from all over who present every appearance of having come here from worse places in order to be left alone. Many had attended the mosque simply because of its geographical proximity to their homes. Even a short acquaintance with the character of the neighborhood —its multiculturalism extending from fish and chips shops to betting parlors, bagel joints, Ethiopian hair salons, Turkish grocers, Somalian internet café owners, and, increasingly, restaurants of all ethnicities stretching a long gentrifying tentacle up north through Islington—seems to give the lie to the more lurid press reports of an extremist neighborhood. What the Muslim Association of Britain calls “Hamza’s gang” may have operated in a zone of relative cultural comfort, but that does not mean that they spoke for any community.
On one of my aimless walks in the neighborhood, I passed by a building site which had a huge piece of incomplete graffiti sprayed on to one of the main temporary walls near the sidewalk. I’m pretty sure that the person who put it there was interrupted in the middle of writing out “END THE OCCUPATION OF IRAQ,” or something like that. Instead, in a message that seemed meant only for me, and which summed things up pretty well as far as an American werewolf in London was concerned, it simply read: “END THE OC.”