The weather was surprisingly balmy in London that day. Bundles of thick
clouds scudded across the skies above the National and the Tate Modern on
the South Bank, but on the other side of the river, the sun, perched in a
gash of blue, painted the leaves of the new trees and the grass in the
squares a lush green.
Four elderly gents sat on a wooden bench in Berkeley Square, their eyes closed to the sun's pleasant warmth, though they occasionally watched the toddlers perking along next to their mothers. One of the small-fry, who was just learning how to walk, gripped the handle of his pram. A blue-haired old woman smiled sweetly at the sight, when suddenly something cast a shadow over her. She looked up and saw a young man pulling something out of his coat and smiling at her before everything went dark.
The explosion set off by the suicide bomber was so powerful that the entire glass facade of the nearby building shattered and crashed slowly to the ground, releasing a white storm of documents that floated gently down into the smoking ruins. Even the rescue crews could barely recognize the place. But who could have imagined that this would only be the prologue?
Even as dozens of ambulances sped toward Mayfair, the city was shaken by a tremendous blast from the direction of Covent Garden: A blue van that was parked in the Strand, next to Bush House, exploded at 3 P.M., killing and wounding dozens of passengers on a double-decker bus and setting off tremors in the headquarters of the BBC's World Service. Radio listeners around the world heard the thunderous explosion in real time during the world news hour, just as the announcer was speaking about "the cycle of violence in the Middle East in the wake of yesterday evening's attack, when 15 Israelis were purportedly killed in what Israel calls `terrorism.'"
Reporters from Sky News, broadcasting direct from the streets of London, could barely find the words to express the depth of their shock and horror at this pointless mass murder of dozens of innocent civilians: "It's murder! Nothing but insane sadistic Nazi murder!" one reporter exclaimed, holding up with repulsion nails and screws with which the terrorists had packed the bomb in order to magnify the killing. "It wasn't a nightingale that sang in Berkeley Square yesterday," The Independent lamented the next day in a paraphrase of the old song, "it was the Devil himself."
Still, the celebrated English stiff upper lip was maintained at least until the next evening, when two terrorists (or "fighters," as they were described by French television) blew themselves up within a short time of each other: one in the midst of the crowd in the foyer of the Gielgud Theater, the other in a packed Chinese restaurant in Soho. Dozens of people were killed in the two blasts. The West End emptied out in a jiff and resembled a ghost town in the flickering yellow lights. The wails of the ambulances and the rescue vehicles "transformed the metropolis into one vast scream," as The Guardian put it the next day. The entire front page of The Mirror was taken up with the word "M-A-S-S-A-C-R-E!" while the Sun demanded "R-E-V-E-N-G-E!"
The cameras of Sky News, broadcasting live from Downing Street, accidentally captured an embarrassing spectacle, which was edited out in reruns: The prime minister's wife, Cherie Blair, her hair messed and wearing a rumpled housecoat, was seen through the partially open door pounding on the chest of a bodyguard and screaming hysterically, "My children! Where are my children! Tell me they're all right! Do something! Anything!! Why doesn't someone wipe out these stinking murderers already!!" But the prime minister himself appeared shortly afterward, cool and composed as usual, albeit a bit pale, and announced that he was convening the cabinet in an emergency session and placing the army on full alert.
Five Islamic organizations and a non-group calling itself "Saxon Scalpers" claimed responsibility for the attacks and threatened that they were just the beginning. However, government and army spokesmen asserted that those directly to blame for the attacks were Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, a fanatic sect from East Timor and three individuals with a "Middle Eastern appearance" from Earl's Court. That same night, large commando forces raided Earl's Court, on which a strict curfew had been imposed by a special emergency order. Tough paratroopers set up roadblocks on Cromwell Road (the pleas of a pregnant Indian woman to let her through were rebuffed), conducted house-to-house searches and carried out mass arrests.
The public showed understanding for the unconventional measures: "All the laws of civilization and the Magna Carta are null and void in the face of bastard murderers who are capable of massacring innocent theatergoers," declared the actress and politician Glenda Jackson in an impromptu interview next to the tube station in Hampstead.
Londoners no longer ventured out of their homes, living off home deliveries of pizza and spending their time watching commercials and travel shows on television. But after the suicide bombing of schoolchildren at Paddington Station and a second explosion that targeted the rescue forces, the stiff upper lip grew flaccid, and cool and collected gave way to hot and bothered.
Speaking on the BBC, a part-military analyst and part-spokesman stated that the Royal Air Force was ready to go into action and that an operation was being contemplated against East Timor or other islands in the Indonesian archipelago.
Why there, of all places? A spokesman for Whitehall explained: "The authorities have definite proof of ideological support for the terrorist attacks on the part of Timorese - or Asian, at all events - terrorists." He declined to elaborate. In the militant atmosphere, no one bothered to ask what the proof consisted of. Reporters wanted to know if and when an attack would be mounted on the Yemenite village where candies were distributed and people were seen dancing on rooftops after the attacks. "Although we have no interest in entering Asia, we have no choice but to do what must be done," the spokesman stated. "This is a kind of rolling operation against whomever we run into."
French President Jacques Chirac expressed his country's condolences to the families of the victims, but protested vigorously against the "blow to freedom of movement and expression" at Earl's Court. He also warned against rash military operations that would only lead to an escalation of the violence. Nevertheless, on the very day he spoke, British bombers "attacked targets" in a number of villages or islands (the armed forces were vague about this and closed East Asia to reporters). A well-populated orphanage was hit accidentally, but Foreign Secretary Jack Straw rejected the criticism from Europe, stating, "I express regret, but what can you do: When you chop down trees, chips fly."
Straw reacted furiously to the warning issued by the Swedish foreign minister about possible war crimes: "I would suggest to these Scandinavian bleeding hearts not to preach to us. We'll see how those Vikings behave when their Uppsala is sent flying into space by terrorist bombs."
The BBC announcers lost a bit of their famous imperial calm, especially after the major attack at Shepherd's Bush, not far from the television studios. Tim Sebastian, who made mincemeat out of the French ambassador on his "Hard Talk" interview program, could barely restrain himself:
- "What are you saying, then? That we have no right to defend ourselves against murderous terrorism?"
- "What you call terrorism," the ambassador corrected him.
The veins on the balding brow of the interviewer seemed about to burst: "What do you mean - `What we call terrorism'? What is it if not terrorism? What should we call it? Kohlrabi? Carbuncle? What do you suggest we call it, when our people are being massacred day after day?!"
- "Attacks," the ambassador replied coolly, lighting up a Gitane with a gilded lighter. "Ostensible attacks by supposed militants."
For a moment it looked as though Sebastian was about to strangle his guest.
- "I want to make it clear," the ambassador continued. "My government and I deplore the cycle of violence and the harm done to civilians on both sides. But if I may be permitted: I personally feel compassion for those who saw fit to carry out the suicide bombings. How did Voltaire put it? `Although I ....'"
- "You can stuff Voltaire up your ass, frog!" the veteran BBC correspondent burst out and lunged at the ambassador's throat as the screen went dark to the sound of screams and gasps.
The first explosion in Paris occurred at the least expected time and place: on Sunday afternoon, next to the merry-go-round in Luxembourg Garden, not far from the puppet theater, when the place was crowded with children and with people playing petanque. The players had removed their jackets and hung them on hangers, rolled up their sleeves and were rolling iron balls across the ground. One charming mademoiselle, clad in tight jeans, bent over and with a graceful gesture of the hand, sent a slow but accurate ball toward the others - but just then, the whole park was sent hurtling into the air by the force of the tremendous bomb that went off next to the merry-go-round. The skies seemed to darken, and immediately afterward, the survivors were deluged by a downpour of blood, dirt, bits of clothing and scorched body parts.
For a moment - more precisely, for eight seconds - a bizarre silence descended on the scene, which was broken only by the beating wings of frightened pigeons that took off in a large cloud, and by the car alarms that were triggered by the shock wave. Eight seconds of eerie silence - before the horrific screams, the groans of the wounded and the endless sirens of the firefighters, police and ambulances that pierced the placid Sunday afternoon until evening.
A Parisian intellectual, participating in a television discussion later in the day, spoke of "the eight seconds of catastrophic quiet that followed the grim reaper's brandishing of the scythe. The assassin. The butcher."
Who could have imagined that the "eight seconds of catastrophic quiet" would become a nearly everyday occurrence in Paris and other French cities? A series of explosions and warnings about suicide bombers - Islamic, Senegalese, Timorese, Algerians and just plain anarchists who seemed to have entered a murderous trance - turned the streets of the cities into a maelstrom of blasts, horror, security checks, wailing sirens, flickering blue lights and roadblocks.
The attacks accumulated into a kind of nightmarish routine: the pair of suicide bombers at Flore and Deux Magots; the bomber in the floating boat restaurant; the attack on the line of people in front of Victor Hugo House by the Place des Vosges; the woman suicide bomber in the Samaritaine department store; the car bomb at Ste-Chapelle that destroyed the marvelous stained-glass windows that had survived all the vicissitudes of history and were lost forever in an instant of barbarity.
Who can remember all the attacks? Who can keep track of all the funerals?
The face of President Chirac in his speech to the nation said it all: "This is a war for our homes. Mirabeaux said that Paris is a mysterious sphinx. Today that wounded sphinx calls to us: Revenge! Revenge! Revenge!"
That same evening, a French bomber joined the British forces in carpet-bombing somewhere in Asia, though it had to return to base due to a technical hitch. A spokesman for the Elysee Palace said that the president and the government were not ruling out the possible use of tactical nuclear arms: "It is very simple. It is them - or us. It's either a few goat turds in some desert country - or the foie gras and the Beaujolais and the Pont Alexandre."
Even Emanuel Halperin was seen to lift an eyebrow. The French embassy sent an angry protest to Israeli Television for biased and one-sided reporting.
from Ha'aretz, Sunday, June 30, 2002 (Tamuz 20, 5762).