Have you ever taken the Tube in London? Can you imagine the scene last Thursday morning: the terror, the smoke, the smell of burning, the heat, the panic, the darkness and the desperation?
What would you have done? Tried to call your wife, boyfriend or children? But there is no signal. People scream for help from a sealed tomb, 200 feet below street level.
The week following the Madrid bombings, I remember being on the Tube and thinking, as I descended deep into the bowels of the earth at Marble Arch, just how soft a target it was. Now the inevitable has happened – and it will happen again. The softest of soft targets has been hit: London’s buses and tubes.
Tony Blair and his mates at the G8 summit in Gleneagles – people who never use public transport – may have been the targets, but everyday Londoners were the victims.
But who are everyday Londoners?
They are us. London is our Manhattan – a huge, throbbing megalopolis on our doorstep. The Irish are the biggest ethnic minority in London, a city of minorities; we are the biggest property investors, and millions of us feel quite at home there.
An attack on London is an attack on Dublin. Despite some of our Irish self-deluded notions, the terrorists who carried out this mass murder don’t make any distinction between English or Irish, as the fates of Ken Bigley and Margaret Hassan made clear.
They don’t care whether you are Spanish, French, Scottish or Welsh – this is the lesson of London. We – that’s you and me – are somebody’s enemy. Bizarre as it may sound, someone out there, possibly living among us, hates our tolerance, our wealth and our values.
We are all soft, fleshy targets.
That’s why, in an important sense, London is even worse than September 11.
Of course, thankfully, the numbers will prove to be much lower than New York and Madrid in 2003. But quantity is not everything; nor even is the dramatic flair of hitting the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Indeed, London was actually the antithesis of September 11. Instead of striking prominent symbols, the terrorists went for boring buses and tedious trains.
It is precisely the ability to make any bus or train a potential coffin that generates the greatest fear, because anybody and everybody, anywhere and everywhere, is a potential target.
There may be some direct economic effects, such as a moderate fall in tourist numbers. There may also be a modest impact on property values in central London, and some investment decisions in the City might be put on hold.
Indeed, the fact that the bombings occurred at a time when the economy was already showing signs of weakening, just like September 11, may have an amplified impact on consumer spending.
But the real impact will be on us. We will feel heightened anxiety every time we hear “mind the gap”, every time we hop on a London bus or every time we catch the Stansted Express.
There was never any doubt that Thursday’s doings were al-Qaeda’s work; nor can there be any question that this was al-Qaeda’s best work since September 11.
The multiple strike showed that the organisation is alive, very well and very much in business – despite its recent low profile; that it can organise and execute complex operations, apparently wherever it chooses, and that it can paralyse a huge city – and, by extension, neutralise an entire G8 country and inflict heavy economic damage, as well as loss of life.
Al-Qaeda’s message to Bush, Blair and the other self-proclaimed leaders of the world is presented via its actions: we kill en masse, at random and spit in your collective Crusader faces. What are you going to do about it?
Well, what are we going to do? The best impromptu response last Thursday came from Ken Livingstone, who captured the moment by out-Giuliani-ing Rudy Giuliani with an address about resolve, values and determination. Addressing the terrorists head on, he said, basically: ï¿½Forget it, lads, your game is up. We are not going to change.ï¿½
He said that Londoners would continue getting buses, tubes and trains.
They might be anxious, but they are going to carry on, and while they will think twice about the nervous-looking bloke in the puffa jacket fidgeting at the back of the bus, that is just a fact of life now.
To get an idea of what London might look like in the near future, to appreciate what it is like to be a multicultural nation trying to function in an atmosphere of fear, one might visit Tel Aviv, as several thousand Irish football fans, including myself, did last March.
Tel Aviv is a marvellous city, and we were treated exceptionally well. It was like any other Mediterranean metropolis: loud, brash and hot.
The city faces the sea and all urban life centres on the beach. Like Barcelona, Marseilles or Naples, it is a late-night party town full of clubs, bars and cafes blaring music late into the night. It is also a flamboyantly gay city.
There are scant outward signs that Tel Aviv is a Jewish city at all. Unlike Jerusalem, there are few Orthodox Jews around, while synagogues are, for the most part, invisible.
Although Jewish, Israelis are ethnically an exotic mixture of western Europeans, north Africans, Yemenis, Iraqis and Syrians, as well as Irish, English, Russians, Poles, Americans, South Africans and South Americans.
It is a monotheistic melting pot of a diaspora that brought back the culture, language and customs of the four corners of the earth. Most Israelis are a bit of this and a bit of that.
Unexpectedly, there are more black men in uniform than you will see in most American or British cities, because, due to demographics, the Ethiopian Jews make up a disproportionate number of young soldiers.
In short, Israel is quite the opposite of a unidimensional Jewish country.
Therefore, the overall impression of Tel Aviv – the heart of liberal Israel – is less like the major city of a theocracy and more like a mini-London, where multi-culturalism flourishes and diversity is embraced and encouraged. The occupied territories seem very far away, and, psychologically, they are.
However, get on a bus and all this liberalism and normality evaporates. It is them and us. Global or national politics don’t matter when you are commuting on a bus, tube or train. You are vulnerable and you know it. Anxiety rises; people become agitated, nervous and suspicious.
Despite having my bags checked beforehand, I hopped on the Tel Aviv/Jerusalem bus with a few other Irish football fans last Good Friday morning, and I immediately regretted not getting a taxi.
Together with the other lads, I scanned the faces on the bus, double-checked people getting on at bus stops and felt slightly sick every time anybody made an unexpected move.
This bag-checking and general suspicion was the norm in Belfast’s city centre, shops, hotels and restaurants in the 1970s.
In future, our daily life could become a cross between 21st century Tel Aviv and 1970s Belfast, because what happened in London will happen again – maybe in Dublin next time. Expect identity cards to be introduced in Britain over the next few years, and moves in that direction to be replicated here.
In a strange way, no matter what our personal politics, even if you support the establishment of a Palestinian state immediately, we are all like Israelis now. We need to get used to the fact that, despite our personal views, to someone out there we all look the same. We are all infidels, and we are all legitimate targets.