As the 10th anniversary of the London bombings on 7/7 is marked with wreaths, services of remembrance and moments of silence, my thoughts are taken back to that day in a very personal way.
Like millions of other Londoners, I caught the tube into the centre of London that morning. I count myself fortunate that I was already off the tube and at my destination when the first bomb exploded, tearing through metal, flesh and bone with indiscriminate indifference.
I was visiting my wife, Mel at Bart’s Hospital (near St Paul’s). She was half way through yet another 3 months in hospital after her near fatal accident in 2003. It was not going well. In May she began a final series of reconstructive surgery on her leg and abdomen, attempting to cover areas of flesh which had been torn away by the tarmac and the lorry’s wheels. After the first operation she was held together with over 120 shiny metal staples which made her leg and stomach look like a giant zip, but the wounds intended to improve her appearance wouldn’t heal, and bit by bit, the necrotic tissue which resulted had to be removed, painfully and hopelessly.
I was in the ward with her when news of the bombs started to come in. We had already heard an unusual number of sirens outside, and now the hospital was gearing up for a major incident. Beds were being emptied of all but the most seriously ill. Patients were being sent home or moved to less acute wards. Those being admitted for planned surgery were being turned away, and the hospital staff were whispering the latest reports to each other.
Our first reaction was fear. They wouldn’t try to send Mel home, would they? With the number of tubes and machines she was linked to, it would have been a nightmare. We need not have worried. Mel’s situation was too serious for that to be an option, and so we settled into waiting in the largely empty ward – waiting for whatever would follow.
By now the streets outside were eerily quiet. Traffic was almost non-existent cut off by the many road closures. The only sound of traffic was the wail of sirens from ambulances, police and fire trucks, often travelling at high speed along the empty roads.
A television was brought into the nursing station, and hospital staff gathered there in every spare moment to try to glean more information in the confusion which followed the blasts. Mixed in with the unfolding horror of what had happened, there were fears of more bombs, more attacks.
In the end only a handful of victims were brought to Mel’s ward, and only one stayed beyond a few days. But the effect on that victim’s life was clear and dramatic. In the bed next to Mel’s was a young woman with severe lacerations to her face, arms and legs. She too had parts of her body held together with stiches and staples. She too had to endure painful changes of dressings and wonder at the long term effects on her life. But her wounds had not been caused by accidental negligence – they had been coldly and deliberately inflicted in a planned and co-ordinated attack designed to kill and maim as many people as possible. Mel and I heard her crying with her fiancé and family, day after day as they came to terms with what had happened.
At the end of the day, I remember having to walk home to Brixton – along with many other people for whom it was the only means of getting out of the centre of London.
I also remember all the security alerts on the tube in the days that followed. In the heightened levels of alert, every suspicious bag or situation was met with trains being stopped, and announcements over the tannoy asking passengers to exit the station immediately. I remember the calm and stoic way in which commuters responded each time, without panic as we made our way to the surface and tried to work out how to complete our journeys.
Finally, I remember the shooting and killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station – one of our two local stations – by police who mistook him for a bomber because of bungled intelligence and the puffer jacket he was wearing. Yet another victim of the bombings.
Today, 10 years on, what has changed?
For the UK, the focus has shifted from Al Qaeda to ISIS, but the threat remains the same. Around the world, acts of terror continue on an almost daily basis. Suicide bombers have become common place and lone gunmen still wreak havoc in people’s lives, claiming allegiance to some misguided creedal cause.
Over the last 10 years, the terror of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza have been met with the terror of missiles and artillery rounds fired from Israeli jets and tanks. Iraq and Syria have descended in to the anarchy which has allowed ISIS to grow and impose its brutal power on millions. The lives of people in hotels and shopping centres in Mumbai and Kenya have been devastated and hundreds of children and young women have been abducted in Nigeria. In the USA, marathon runners were blown up in Boston. In Europe, cartoonists, journalists and Jews have been targeted with bullets designed to exact retribution on anyone who believes that the pen is mightier than the sword.
In recent days, tourists were gunned down on a beach in Tunisia, mosques were bombed in Kuwait and Nigeria, and a young white man killed worshippers at a Bible study in the ‘black church’ which had welcomed him in Charleston, USA.
So what is the answer?
Certainly not the law of revenge which seems to dominate the conflict between the Israeli Government and Palestinians. Certainly not the spiral of violence that we see in some parts of the world as different communities become more and more sectarian, demonising those who have hurt them to the point where retaliations are just as inhuman as the acts which led to them. Not even the ever higher levels of security and surveillance which affect all our lives and yet cannot detect every threat.
In the long run perhaps the only way forward is one which at first appears weak – yet demands huge inner strength.
It is the path which family members of many Charleston victims have courageously sought to embrace when they faced the murderer of their loved ones in court.
People like the daughter of victim Ethel Lance:
“I will never talk to her ever again. I will never hold her ever again. You hurt me. You hurt a lot of people. But God forgive you. I forgive you.”
Others acknowledged how hard it is to forgive and yet spoke of beginning that journey, “For me, I'm a work in progress, and I acknowledge that I'm very angry. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul. And I also thank God I won't be around when your judgement day comes.”
In such forgiveness, there is a powerful challenge – the challenge to change.
Anthony Thompson, the grandson of victim Myra Thompson, told the killer, “I forgive you, my family forgives you. … We would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Do that and you'll be better off than you are right now.”
Nor is this simply a Christian response. Malala Yousafzai hit headlines around the world after miraculously surviving being shot in the head and neck by a Taliban gunman in Pakistan when she was just 15. Two years later she became the youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize recipient.
When she addressed the UN on her 16th birthday, she said these words,
“I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me, I would not shoot him. This is the compassion I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and the Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Muhammad Ali Jina. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa… That is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.”
In the end, hate can never conquer hate – costly, committed, forgiving love can.