Well, the G8 protests may have gone off peacefully, but someone certainly took advantage of the distraction. What better time to stage an attack on London than the week in which half of Britain’s police, counter-terrorism forces, and intelligence services have their attention firmly focused on the tiny village of Auchterarder?

Britain is no stranger to terrorist attacks, but just like the Madrid bombings last year, the timing of this one is particularly pointed. (I can’t help but feel that Tony Blair’s condemnation of Islamic terror groups is premature, though, unless he has access to some very interesting information that hasn’t been leaked to the press yet. If not, what the hell was he trying to achieve with that “We know that these people act in the name of Islam” sound bite?)

I’m still trying to digest the significance of the attack. There is a disturbing contrast that keeps buzzing around in my head: at the Live 8 concerts, our attention was being drawn to the figure of 30,000 people dying every day in Africa because of poverty. Today, the news reports that 38 people were killed in London by bomb blasts.

Can one compare these two statistics? How does one take the measure of a tragedy? How do we react in the face of each one? And what do those reactions say about us?

Earlier this evening, I had to detour around a blocked-off section of Princes Street. Buildings all the way up to George Street were evacuated. Police officers weren’t saying anything other than “there has been an incident, and we’ve had to close off the road.” However, right at the middle of the cordoned-off and cleared-out street stood a solitary bus with its lights flashing. A bomb squad control van was parked discreetly up on the pavement some distance away. Fortunately, the bomb scare turned out to be just that: a scare. There were no real explosives.

I stood at the edge of the cordon for a while, talking to Abi on the phone, and letter her know what was going on. Part of me was fascinated, part of me was horrified. I wanted to stay around and watch in case something happened (how often do you see something lke that in real life!), while the more sensible side of my brain was screaming “are you fucking nuts? You think it would be fun to have the experience of being caught on the edge of an explosion?”

I walked away, all the while wondering what I would do if I saw a flash reflected in a shop window, or heard the first report and felt the first rush of a shock wave. I was on Princes Street at lunchtime earlier today when the one o’clock gun went off, and I jumped out of my skin. Several people yelped, and many other people just froze. I looked around for smoke and flames, and it took me a second or two to remember the time of day, and realise that nothing was wrong.

I can’t imagine what a real bomb would have been like. It wouldn’t be like in the movies. It wouldn’t be cool. I wouldn’t want to enthuse about it afterwards. I wouldn’t walk away unchanged. If I walked away at all.

G8, yada yada

I was going to write something about the G8 protests happening in Edinburgh this week, but Abi has already done an excellent job of it over on her blog. Yes, there have been protests; no, there hasn’t been any full-scale rioting.

Edinburgh Evening News front page from 5 July 2005Not that that has stopped the media from trying to hype up even minor kerfuffles. The most egregious sensationalism probably came from today’s (Tuesday’s) Evening News. “THE NIGHTMARE COMES TRUE” reads the garish headline. “We prayed it wouldn’t happen but yesterday the city erupted. The day that rocked the Capital: Pages 2-3, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9, 12”

And yet they couldn’t find anything more shocking to show on the front page than a close-cropped photo of a few police officers pushing back two protesters? Give me a break.

When I cycled along Princes St yesterday afternoon, the riot police outnumbered the revellers/protesters. And in many places, the press photographers outnumbered the riot police.

The unfortunate thing is that it’s in the interests of everyone involved to make the most out of every little scrap and scrape:

  • The protesters want the publicity of defeats in minor incidents to show how strongly they’re being oppressed, and how disproportionate the police response is
  • The police want the publicity of victories in minor incidents to demonstrate how firmly they’ve got the situation under control
  • The media want the publicity of minor incidents, because, well, they don’t have any major ones to report on. They’ve got all these reporters, photographers and camera crews on site, and they damn well want to get their money’s worth. “G8 protests uneventful” doesn’t sell newspapers.
  • The people of Edinburgh want the publicity of minor incidents so that we can tut-tut disapprovingly in public (while breathing sighs of relief in private), and generally maintain a air of superiority over Seattle and Genoa, while still appearing sympathetic to their plight. Edinburgh is far too civilized for all-out street warfare, don’t y’know?
  • The politicians are just happy for any kind of publicity at all.

(Of course, this may all change tomorrow.)

I have to say that I’m terribly cynical about the power of the Make Poverty History movement, the Live 8 concerts, and the G8 protests. It’s feel-good activism. I’m not belittling the goal of abolishing poverty (I am a socialist, after all), but it’s a bit like praying for rain in Glasgow, and then believing that God has smiled on you personally when it starts bucketing down.

The G8 leaders must think that Christmas has come early. Here is this massive popular movement, demanding that they take action over a hugely emotive issue. How much will cost the G8 nations to write off Third World debt? Peanuts. Shave a tiny percentage off of defense budgets, for example, and you’re practically there. When else in history have politicians had it in their power to satisfy so many voters by doing so little?

There will be a press conference, and a few well-photographed handshakes. Job done. Everyone wearing a white armband can smile in satisfaction that they helped make it happen! and go back to not caring about more complex issues affecting the world, like climate change, religious conflicts in the Middle-East, and the slithery tentacles of corporatism. You can’t be expected to solve all the world’s problems yourself, can you?

On a vaguely related topic, I am absolutely in awe of the police’s ability to keep their cool around so many clowns. It’s not that I’m afraid of clowns per se (sinister though they may be), it’s just that anyone who chooses to dress up like that and parade down the street, taunting bystanders with a “look how alternative I am!” attitude, is in clear need of a damn good kicking.