Reviews Press

Beneath the surface of stoicism

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 21 July 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:240
  1. Philip Thomas, senior research fellow (p.thomas{at}
  1. Centre for Citizenship and Community Mental Health, School of Health Studies, University of Bradford

    Media invocation of the “spirit of the Blitz” is a means of avoiding tragic human realities

    The events of 7 July pose difficult, maybe unanswerable, questions. How should we respond? Why did they do it? How could they do it? How can we stop them? The government responds with heightened security, the need to police the state and our borders ever more closely, by introducing new antiterrorism legislation and strengthening our political alignment with the international “war on terror.” But an event of this enormity requires a response from every single one of us. We cannot leave it to government alone. Besides, there are two seemingly unrelated issues arising from media coverage of the bombings that affect us all and demand our attention.

    One is resurgence of the “spirit of the Blitz,” which has figured prominently in reportage. It represents Londoners as brave, plucky individuals determined to carry on with their lives come what may. This image was reinforced by London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the Queen. It was, of course, a stroke of fate that the national commemoration of VE and VJ day took place just three days after the bombs, but this celebration of Britishness was seized on by all. It was both script and balm; it told us how we should be responding and comforted us.

    The other issue is very different. Throughout the coverage of the bombings, journalists and commentators have mirrored our sense of puzzlement and bewilderment at the actions of the young men who were implicated. Witness after witness was brought forward to say how outwardly “normal” the bombers appeared; how unremarkable they were. One was a teacher and a father, described as a gentle family man. Another was portrayed as a model student, a gentle giant who never came across as a fanatic. A third was playing cricket in the park with his friends the night before he travelled down to London. Most of the early accounts of the bombers' lives right up to the event concern their ordinariness, their mundane external appearance. This echoes David Lodge's comment, in Consciousness and the Novel (London: Penguin, 2002) that none of the passengers on the hijacked planes on 11 September 2001 had any inkling of the terrorists' intentions before they boarded.

    Embedded Image

    The VE/VJ day commemoration: an incantation to a bygone age

    Credit: ZZ/GXT/GXN/REX

    What emerges from these disparate themes is a separation of inner from outer, private from public, depth from surface, and mind from society. Ever since Descartes began our quest for certainty and truth by arguing that we should turn inwards (“I think therefore I am”) our subjectivities have lain fractured on one side or another of these dualisms. The language we use for our inner worlds betrays this. Think of metaphors like putting on a brave face, keeping it under wraps, bottling it up.

    These expressions pivot on the distinction between inner and outer, surface and depth. So, why should we be surprised if the men who murdered more than 50 fellow human beings appeared “ordinary”? Our preoccupation with interiority spawned a culture in which the persona must not divulge inner secrets, whether terrorists out to kill, or passengers on the tube living in fear of terror, daring not to break rank and reveal real selves. To do so would be to capitulate.

    But there is a more troubled side to this separation of our inner and outer worlds. When we don the mask of sanity and hide our true feelings from each other, we also avoid having to face up to our moral complicity in the bombings. As long as we blindly stare at each other through eyes of fear, we do not have to ask awkward questions of ourselves and our leaders. Tony Blair claims that the London bombings had nothing to do with Britain's involvement in Iraq. Countless millions here, in Europe, in America, and in Asia disagree. As Guardian columnist Seumas Milne argued on 14 July, it is an insult to the memory of those who died to deny that there may be a link with Iraq. But Iraq is only a part of the problem; what about Palestine, or Afghanistan? Perhaps it is too painful right now to face up to the implications of our foreign policy.

    After 11 September 2001 Ian McEwan wrote: “If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed… Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality” (Guardian, 13 September 2001).

    If this applies to terrorists, which it must, then it must surely apply to us all. Our lives continue. We have the Olympics to look forward to. Meanwhile, we travel by tube and bus, indifferent to our pain and fear. Good! We soldier on; we brush it under the carpet. And the cost? The cost is that we do not stop to think what it is like to be the parents of the 10 000 young Muslims massacred in Srebrenice.

    The media reflect the way we see ourselves; they shape our subjectivity. The “spirit of the Blitz” is nothing more than a whisper, an incantation to a bygone age in which we knew with certainty where the threat lay. It is comforting, at times of national crisis, to retreat behind cricket and warm beer notions of Englishness, but in doing so not only do we avoid our real feelings, we also avoid other tragic human realities that challenge our view of the world. Terrorism will only end when we can honestly look at each other with piteous recognition.

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