It’s an over-familiar sight where TV news bulletins are concerned, one of the predominant clichés employed to emphasise what often seems a curiously testosterone-fuelled competition between broadcasters to bring the scene of the crime into the nation’s living room, as though each news channel was competing in a pissing contest. Whichever reporter first gets to stand where the incident occurred is declared Alpha Male No.1. It’s no longer regarded as sufficient to have the newsreader recite the headlines; he has to be dispatched to where the action took place. High school massacre, flood, famine, earthquake, plague of locusts – our man on the spot is there, LIVE!
I don’t know if any of you reading this have ever actually had the media circus set up camp on your doorstep, but I once had that dubious honour. This was in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, which took place exactly ten years ago today. When police belatedly arrived at the stable door after the proverbial horse had bolted, it brought them to Burley in Leeds. For those not in the know, Burley is the…erm…less refined poor relation of Headingley; whilst the latter revels in its reputation as the scene of many a memorable Test Match, home to the odd poncy restaurant and the nearest Leeds has to a tree-lined, St John’s Wood-like neighbourhood, the former is a corner of the city I knew as home for roundabout eight years and got to know, if not necessarily love.
Burley’s population, certainly at the time I lived there (1996-2008), consisted of perhaps 60% students, 30% Asians, 5% old ladies who’d resided in the area since the war, and 5% hard-drug users (the group I unfortunately belonged to for three of those years). Lazy phrases such as ‘The Muslim Community’, which imply there is a specific bus-route to some exclusively Islamic ghetto, don’t reflect what I remember of Burley, in which the various ethnic and social groups seemed to overlap in a fairly congenial manner.
Anyway, when it emerged that two of the suicide bombers responsible for the deaths of 52 innocent civilians in London had travelled to the capital from their homes in Burley, the media descended upon my neighbourhood. As more background on all four bombers was revealed, some of the connections were disturbing for me personally; one of the four, Mohammad Sidique Khan, came from Beeston in Leeds. Beeston is the other side of the city to Burley, but Khan worked at a primary school across the road from where a close friend of mine lived at the time. Another – Germaine Lindsay – was from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, home to yet another close friend of mine at the time. The fact that the other two, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain, had both lived round the corner before stumbling upon a fast-track short-cut to Paradise, made me feel like some Forrest Gump figure, as though sharing the same geographical space as these twisted, nihilistic individuals somehow put me on the periphery of events I had no participation in. I could have walked past any of them prior to July 7 2005.
It was certainly a strange sensation to switch-on the TV in the days following 7/7 and observe the same sight on screen as was available via a two-minute trot on foot. As police roadblocks barred motorists from the street in question, reporters from both regional and national news took advantage of no traffic whilst I marvelled at the surreal novelty of seeing familiar locals joining the chorus line of background bystanders wherever the camera pointed, giving the watching world a rare opportunity to study 80s fashions being worn without a sense of irony. We’ve all seen it on TV when this method of reporting is used, but it is undoubtedly weird when it happens barely 200 yards from your home. Of course, as is customary, another story breaks and the on-the-spot reporters relocate to the scene of the next crime; but for a couple of days in 2005, it felt as though the whole media had moved into the area, and the effect on house prices was the least of my concerns.
It’s a horrible coincidence that the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings should take place a couple of weeks after another gruesome slaughter of British citizens has dominated the headlines, even if this latest one occurred on a foreign field. 7/7 was the first large-scale terrorist incident to have been carried out on British soil since the heyday of the IRA. When the Peace Process came to Northern Ireland, Brits assumed all that business was over and done with. We didn’t anticipate a fresh wave of terrorism claiming both lives and headlines. With the benefit of hindsight, the confused and blinkered reasoning of the 7/7 bombers transmitted via their video messages recorded before their day trip to London foreshadowed everything that has sadly become all-too commonplace in the decade since.
‘Radicalisation’ appears to be the current euphemism for ‘Brainwashing’. When the US soldier played by Laurence Harvey in ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ undergoes his conversation into a subconscious assassin at the hands of America’s enemies, the process is one firmly in the hands of the Chinese security services, one of the Dark Arts that was then the exclusive property of clandestine government agencies and something that required years to perfect the psychological techniques of. Today, the democratisation of technology has enabled such tactics to be transmitted across the world by untrained amateurs; the Global Village now has the online equivalent of the disturbing parochial customs often hidden beneath the surface of flesh-and-blood villages. Nobody involved in the genesis of the internet anticipated it would one day become the ultimate bedroom brainwashing tool, especially effective in seducing susceptible young Englishmen who feel they have no stake in the future of their actual country and fall back on some deluded romantic notion of a fabricated culture they have no direct experience of. Seeing oneself as a sabre-wielding Ottoman horseman is certainly a more appealing image than sitting behind a desk in a factory farm call-centre with a dozen redundant degrees to your name, even if this fantasy still means you’re merely Billy Liar with a beard.
Since the awful events of July 7 2005, the British public have been repeatedly warned the repetition of such an atrocity is inevitable. As if to justify this warning, whichever government happens to be in power (and Blair was still reigning ten years ago) has come to the conclusion that the civil rights and legal liberties of the innocent have to curbed and cut back in order to keep them safe, essentially criminalising the majority for the crimes of a minority. It’s like being at school when the whole class is forced to stand with their hands on their heads because one solitary member of it drew a cock & balls on the blackboard.
I suppose the main difference between 2005 and today is the widening of the Jihadist industry sales pitch, no longer exclusively targeting the young and impressionable, but inviting mum, dad, granddad and granny to join the party as well; the recent case of a British Muslim family of every conceivable age voluntarily vanishing in Syria appears to underline this. And how ironic that the second-class status of the fairer sex has been upgraded in one explosive area; who says Radical Islam doesn’t value women? So, onwards, brothers and sisters! I don’t wanna a holiday in the sun; I just wanna go to the new Belsen.