'There is a central question: how young men born and bred in Britain, with all the rights and freedoms a British citizen enjoys, could decide to blow themselves up on London's public transport system, killing fellow citizens.'
- Milan Rai, introduction to '7/7'
'7/7: WHO REALLY BOMBED LONDON?... Inside job frame-ups are routine operations when ruling fraternities want another war or more police-state powers... these 'black ops' are also known as 'false flag terrorism' because they throw the blame onto innocents *allegedly* linked to the enemy of today.'
- Leaflet from 'The Independent People's Investigation into July Seventh'
Milan Rai wasn't sure if he'd make it to his own book launch. He's been in court this morning, charged with organising an unauthorised demonstration in the vicinity of Parliament - this was when he and Maya Evans read out the names of dead soldiers by the Cenotaph last year. However, he's here (having been fined, although he's refusing to pay) for the launch of his measured, analytical book '7/7: The London Bombings, Islam and the Iraq War' and a public meeting at a Friends Meeting House in central London. Evans, a member of the group Justice not Vengeance, is the chair, and the speakers are Iraqi activist academic Nadje al-Ali, 7/7 survivor and writer Rachel North and 'radical historian' Mark Curtis. The room is filled with thoughtful people who want to listen and discuss the issues, and as it transpires, some who are convinced that a lack of CCTV footage proves that Tony Blair personally Sellotaped exploding wombats to the underground tracks.
The speakers are excellent. Iraqi Londoner Nadje al-Ali explains that 'In Iraq, people say goodbye every morning as if for the last time, because it could be.' She herself is 'scared by Bush's policies and Islamic extremism alike'. She's insistent that peaceful activists have to examine what they have achieved and what they haven't, and have to ask 'What is our failure?' Just as the people at the meeting are not the ones who need convincing, the people who ask these hard questions are the ones who least need to. Governments rarely ask this of themselves. But there's a solid self-awareness about these panelists which can be used; they openly acknowledge that you can't just preach to the converted. We get a niggling sense, though, that the consistent willingness to acknowledge failure and shortcoming, although only the right thing to do, is seen as a weakness itself by those who disagree. Still, what else can you do?
Mark Curtis is especially thoughtful and eloquent, saying it's 'entirely rational' for Iran to be acquiring nuclear weapons, as military intervention is sending a clear message that countries need to protect themselves. Well, yeah. He reels off interesting and terrifying interconnecting facts about British arms exports, alliances with oppressive elites, and how the 'foreign policy boomerang' is making us less safe. Rachel North talks about how it's possible to eke positive things out of the atrocities. She's written copiously in the press and on her blog about the sense of unity and solidarity felt by the victims and the people of London, and is also tireless in pressing for a public enquiry and stressing the need to put constant bugs in the government's ear. This evening she firmly stresses the need for insight, insisting that 'we need to understand what made [the bomber on the King's Cross train] do it, then we can engage with it and attack it at the source'. She understands that 'ideas can't be made war on' but we've got to do better than 'fighting violence and fear with more violence and fear'.
Rai himself is engaging, funny and impassioned. He explains with a deliberate drawl that he's 'a living demonstration of the misnomer that the Serious... Organised... Crimes... Act... has become.' He goes on to say that there's pretty much unanimous agreement on the part of the government, the Home and Foreign Offices and the British people that there's a link between the attacks and the war on Iraq, but Blair is doing his best to deflect it with nifty lawyerly pronouncements. He speaks about media self-censorship and complicity, the hardening of attitudes towards Muslims - all heavy and depressing stuff, but it's heartening to hear it aired with a view to attempting to alter it.
Then questions are taken, and the fun really begins after the first one or two. An imperious voice says something about Rai's book being, with all due respect, wrong. Maya Evans gets heavy. She is aware that 'some people have come to disagree', and gives the speaker three minutes to talk. Although this is a public meeting, there is an agenda of sorts which this speaker isn't aligning himself with - since the agenda isn't completely clarified, there's immediate tension. A tall middle-aged man in a crinkled cream suit comes to the front and explains that 'the purpose of 7/7 was to abort the G8 summit - there were no Muslim terrorists - the bombs were maybe strapped underneath the trains...' The hot, stuffy room goes still - any incipient boos and tuts are suppressed, exasperation released only in barely-audible sighs. It's standard-issue conspiracy theorist tripe, and yet there's a discomfort felt in hearing it which may come from the knowledge that if he believes this, others will, and the search for truth is put into further needless jeopardy by people who loftily claim to be the only real seekers of it. He continues with strident pronouncements as to train time discrepancies and other details he considers evidence of governmental skulduggery, and insists that 'synthetic terror' is being created. Wonderful phrase, but unfortunately anchored in nothing but hubris. He sits down to a mighty clatter of applause from one row. Nadje al-Ali wearily responds that 'your anger is misplaced. Mil is trying to expose government lies - we are not polarised. But in saying there were no bombers, you're not helping me, you're not helping anyone.' North, the subject of some colourful theories herself (apparently, she's a whole team of MI5 operatives), merely says, 'I think you can probably guess my response.'
There's further fuss from the Independent Enquiry contingent. Maya Evans has a formidable presence but struggles a little, veering between allowing free speech to show its silly arse as well as its fresh face, and insisting that the subject must be closed because it's not on the agenda. We veer along with her. On one hand, yes, let them give themselves enough rope to hang themselves with, and don't give them an excuse to cry 'suppression of information'. On the other hand, they're wasting time, souring the atmosphere; and although they're civilised enough and there's no risk of a chair-hurling saloon brawl erupting, the small group are a dominant presence. One man behind us in a loud and clear Brian Sewell tone asks 'if Milan Rai believes in "innocent until proven guilty", and if so, why is he presuming the guilt of these three lads without trial?' Rai looks down at the table. Evans says that they've covered this and won't answer the question. 'If you won't answer then we'll draw conclusions,' huffs the man. Evans backs up a bit. 'If we answer this, can we have a promise from you that we'll move on?' The man says he can't promise for the rest of the group, and besides, 'You're the chair - you decide when we move on.' He's right, of course - she does, and he's just niftily pointed out how she's undermined her own authority. Bugger. But like most of the people in the room, Evans wants more than anything to be reasonable, to have reasonable debate. She's torn, like the rest of us, between letting the loons let rip and shushing them like a schoolmistress. 'Would you like to sit down?' she asks the man. 'I wouldn't *like* to,' he retorts, 'but I shall'. It's all petty point-scoring, and the assumption that a refusal to answer a silly question speaks simply *volumes*, when in fact it's the only sensible thing to do. Start bickering with conspiracy theorists and you begin to eat into what's already been achieved - the fragile establishment of rationale and a tentative way forward for debate. You might as well just down tools and have a custard pie fight - y'know, to relieve the tension.
The meeting breaks up amicably enough, with acknowledgement of the 'tension in the room' and relief that it's been resolved peacefully enough for now. It's been something of a microcosm of the situation being discussed. The difficult struggle to reach a consensus and a solution through civilised discussion, in order to avoid further violence (or in this case shouting, and more plaintive bleats of 'that's *censorship!*'). The importance of hearing everyone's view versus the strong instinct to block some unpleasant voices out. There's also the sad realisation that people will always scrap amongst themselves whatever common ground they have; and also that people's beliefs, whether in the absolute imperative of jihad and martyrdom or in the perpetration of black ops and the non-existence of suicide bombers, become unshakeable fast. Conspiracy theorists are still fundamentalists of a kind, and it's too late to convince them they're wrong, but thankfully it is safe in their case to ignore them. Still, they're fascinating, with their obsessive attention to superfluous detail, their misplaced paranoia and twisting of the words of witnesses to fit their agenda. It's sad when they actually want many of the things the rest of us do, as was pointed out. The problem they create is that they give questioning officialdom a bad name, making it easy to write everyone off who raises a hand and says, 'No, I don't think that's a good enough explanation.'
Then again, as we walked to the tube full of Quaker tea and flapjacks, it did occur to us that there never *has* been any official explanation as to why the bombed number 30 bus carried an advertisement for the horror film 'The Descent', including the review quote 'OUTRIGHT TERROR... BOLD AND BRILLIANT'. Perhaps we should be told?
Justice Not Vengeance.
They Did It In America Too, You Know.