When Bombs Are Directed at Me
"So I guess you've already heard the news," my history professor said last Thursday morning. In the same composed tone he might use on any other day to lecture on 17th century England, he told us about the arrests British police had made in connection to a plot to bomb several flights leaving the United Kingdom. "They targeted American planes," one of my classmates added. While the exact details of the alleged plot were unclear, it was evident that Americans headed home from vacation in the United Kingdom were the main targets. For us, a group of mainly American college students studying in London for six weeks, the news was startling.
Last week, many of my classmates' families were visiting and, fortunately, most made it home before flights were canceled. Some didn't. One student's mother, who was visiting from Indiana, flew out that morning and faced the same restrictions as other passengers bound for the United States: no carry-on baggage, no liquids of any sort, limited medications. The news was just as pressing for us. This is our last week in London, and most of us will fly home by the end of the week. Those bombs might have been meant for us.
Increased restrictions, canceled flights, more armed personnel at airports; this was all eerily reminiscent of the aftermath of 9/11. At breakfast the next morning, some of my classmates seemed mortified at the idea of leaving their music players, medications and books with their checked luggage. The carry-on restrictions, long lines at ticket counters and security checks were all inconvenient, but nothing new to traveling Americans. What was new, then? The type of people targeted, and where they were targeted -- American tourists traveling back from the United Kingdom, a country that supports American influence and military involvement in the Middle East.
For the last month, I've been troubled by the close relationship between these two nations and how it has contributed to the violence there. One recent set of cargo planes carrying bombs to Israel, for example, refueled in a Scottish airport. Whether or not it was officially sanctioned by the United Kingdom -- whose officials commented on the United States' not following proper procedures -- it disturbed peace activists all over the region. At the protests I've attended -- like the one last week in front of London's House of Parliament -- my American passport felt especially heavy.
Even as an American citizen, I have no say in whether the United States -- a nation that purports to represent me -- involves itself in violence, and that makes me reluctant to have anything to do with it. With last week's bombing plot, I felt a similar disaffection. I was targeted because the passport I carry linked me with the American political and corporate machine, a mechanized, militarized force that has completely alienated me.
At the same time, last week's events enhanced a disturbing new sentiment in me: When I became the target, I was increasingly hesitant to criticize the British government-deemed safety policies. Even before the announcements of a plot, the threat of an attack as deadly as last summer's underground tube and bus attacks loomed over much of my time here. In fact, I arrived in London the day after the one-year anniversary of the July 7, 2005, bombings. My dormitory is just steps away from the underground line that was bombed, and everyday on the way to class, I pass by the site where a double-decker was torn apart by a blast. The first few times I rode the tube, I felt cramped and trapped, and once I even experienced a momentary sense of panic.
A year ago, the entire city grieved for those who died. But Londoners learned to, or were at least forced to, move on as they had during the Blitz of the 1940s when the city suffered daily bombings. At London's Tate Britain, a gallery that specializes in British art, I was struck by a drawing depicting a dark, hazy underground tunnel filled with the huddled bodies of people taking shelter from the German bombs. Last summer, Londoners who used their camera phones to document the underground evacuations caught a strikingly similar image.
In light of the information British officials say they have in regard to the attempted bombings, measures to restrict what people bring onto planes seem practical. After 9/11, however, I felt that the U.S. measures in response to the attacks were excessive. In my mind, many, such as the Patriot Act, still are. But I realize now that it was much easier to be critical about these responses as a student in California, so far from the reality that students in New York experienced; the World Trade Center, terrorism, all of it was too distant, almost foreign. Here in London, those fears are all too real for me.
Whether this city will return to George Orwell's vision of a war-torn Airstrip One, awaiting the next barrage of missiles, or whether the United Kingdom will finally step out with American foreign policy by taking greater responsibility for the injustices it has historically caused in much of the world, is yet to be seen. The outcome is up to British politicians and citizens.
As the threat level in the United Kingdom is lifted to "critical," the highest level, George Bush seems convinced that the "Islamic Fascists" are after our freedom. Maybe they are. Maybe the American tourist symbolizes everything that's wrong with our country's foreign policy. The image of the American -- whether a politician, a diplomat, or a soldier -- is that of the tourist who feels entitled to the world, free to travel widely and act without consideration and without consequence.
At the British Museum, there is an exhibit on Islamic modern art that features the work of many artists responding to war, invasion and foreign occupation. When the Lebanese begin reconstructing their torn country, and responding to the violence through art, film or another type of political commentary, a chief concern will be why a former imperial power such as Britain was so compliant with Israeli military and American corporate interests when it could have largely prevented other nations from repeating its past wrongdoings. Or why Americans -- after facing death -- returned from their holidays without questioning the administration that consistently gambled with their lives to achieve its own political, corporate or religious agenda.