Smoke lingers ‘round your fingers
Train heave on to Euston
Do you think you’ve made the right decision this time?
“London”, The Smiths
On February 24, 2004, 100 Iraqis died in two suicide bombings in the Baghdad area.
On January 30, 2005, 16 Iraqis died in a series of suicide bombings and rocket & mortar attacks on polling stations in and around Baghdad.
On February 25, 2005, 30 Iraqis – mostly civilians – died in a series of suicide bombings throughout Iraq.
On May 1, 2005, 25 Iraqis died in two suicide bombings in Baghdad, 20 at a police academy graduation ceremony and 5 at a nearby police station, bringing the death toll for that day and the previous four to 90.
On May 5, 2005, 29 Iraqi policemen died in a series of suicide bombings in and around Baghdad.
On July 7, 2005, at least 37 people died in suicide bombings in London.
How many of us remember each of those multiple deaths by terror in Iraq? How many of us can name the full number of dead in Iraq? And yet, we’ll remember the 37 in London very clearly.
There are some who will say, “Yes, but, you see, the Iraqis live in a war zone. It is to be expected.” To them I say, with all due respect, those Iraqis had no intention of living in a war zone any more than those London commuters did this morning.
I mean no disrespect to our friends in London. I do not mean to diminish in any way the shock and horror and sadness of this rotten, rotten day. God, no.
I love London. I know that city better than I know any other city in the world. Better than Moscow, where I lived for nearly four years. Better than DC, where I’ve lived for more than a decade. One of my friends used to call me “The Walking ‘A to Zed’” after the ubiquitous London Streetfinder mapbook.
The bus that was ripped apart by filthy animals today was destroyed on Tavistock Square. That’s where I lived for a year when I attended the London School of Economics. Passfield Hall, on Endsleigh Place, the northern side of Tavistock Square, a small green urban park, the centerpiece of which is a statue of Gandhi. The local Indian population drape him in flowers on a nearly daily basis. We students simply called Tavistock Square “Gandhi Park.” Isn’t it ironic?
Initially, I’d heard that the bus was destroyed at Russell Square, but it was the confusion of the U.S. media. Then I saw the images and recognized the building that was my home for a year. And the anger and upset and fear that had been rising in me just welled up.
But why am I so hugely touched by what happened in London today, and yet, I am ashamed to say, I barely blink an eye at the multiple casualties that slam Iraq virtually every day? I think the answer is complex, and it’s bothered me all day.
London, like New York and a handful of other cities, is a symbol to the world of the West. London is an icon. It’s also a vibrant, living city. It’s something more tangible and understandable and accessible to most of us here than Baghdad ever will be. It’s not alien landscape. And, for me, it’s personal. It was my home at a very difficult time, right after my father died. It’s the source of so much of the culture that is dear to me – the music and words and humor and dark sarcasm that helped form the person I am.
It’s likely that I’ll never meet many Iraqis in my life. I cannot fathom Islam, though I’ve read the Koran, and I can’t understand more than five or ten words of Arabic, so I will never be able to understand Iraqis.
I once knew a gentleman named Fetikh Teshibayev. Mr. Teshibayev was the Deputy Foreign Minister of Uzbekistan just after the break-up of the Soviet Union. He had been a senior Soviet official who served as an envoy to the Middle East during the 1970’s, and he was – well, still is – a very savvy diplomat. Later he would serve as Uzbekistan’s first ambassador to the United States. He and I butted heads repeatedly during preparations for Secretary of State Baker’s first visit to the independent nation of Uzbekistan. I was the only Russian speaker in a fairly large delegation sent to Tashkent (the two other Russian speakers succumbed to food poisoning early on and got “med-evac’ed” out to Moscow.) I was young, a contractor, and saddled with a lot of responsibility. But, I’d traveled a great deal in the region and knew Uzbek culture and traditions.
Mr. Teshibayev and I "engaged in lively debate" about visit preparations, but we understood one another. I could fathom his culture, if even through a language that was secondary to both of us, but a requirement of life in his country. (This man taught me a lot about diplomacy, too. One night, when the advance delegation – mostly security and communications guys – refused to eat the presidential chef’s goat soup, I was called on the carpet. Mr. Teshibayev quietly glowered at me and uttered this great line, “When I was in China, I ate the snake.” That line is a classic with my friends.)
About ten years back, when Mr. Teshibayev was overseeing the Uzbek Embassy here in Washington, I dropped by to visit. We talked and Mr. Teshibayev mentioned that the Uzbek government was considering endowing a graduate scholarship to Indiana University. He looked at me and said, “You should apply. You should be a Central Asian scholar. You understand us. You get us.”
I get them. That’s what I wish I could do with the Iraqis. I wish I could get them enough for their losses to resonate with me as soundly as London’s losses today.
I wish all my family and friends and strangers on the street could get the Iraqis, too. I wish there was a better way to differentiate between suicide bombers and normal people in Iraq, to demonstrate to normal people in Iowa and Wisconsin and Nebraska that there was a country of decent people (led by a vicious lunatic, for sure) where there is now rubble. I wish there was a better way to help people see that most Iraqis are as innocent as those London commuters this morning.
And then, maybe, we could weep as sincerely and deeply and honestly for Iraq’s losses as we weep for London’s.
Goodnight, London. Peaceful dreams to you, friends. And goodnight Baghdad. I wish you no more nightmares.
As the late Dave Allen used to say, "May your god go with you."