The nail bombs were a blast from a straight, white, imperial past
There’s a bomb. Then there’s the outrage, the shock, the horror. The police under pressure. Something must be done. And, remarkably soon, there’s an arrest. The country pastes up the yellow Job Done sticker congratulating the hard-working, good coppers – and be sure, in this context they are both – on their successful anti-terrorist bob-a-job. But while the suspect is in custody, the hate still runs free.
Of course, the priority was to get the killer, but the real challenge is to imprison the hatred he unleashed. We all want these kinds of people to be different from us, even mad, definitely evil. But, however hard it is, you have to accept that bombing is just the illogical conclusion of everyday prejudice. Listening to the phones at the Stonewall office all day on Saturday, the evidence was there.
As the debris was being cleared and the families and friends began to weep and the wave of shock turned to despair and loss, the calls started to come in. ‘We’re so very sorry.’ ‘Is there anything we can do?’ Real sympathy. Tears on the switchboard. Even my cleaning lady rang to check that I was fine.
And then, ‘I’ve got a box of nails here, shall I send it to you?’ ‘They should have bombed every pub in the street.’ ‘Fuck off nancies.’ ‘Gas the queers’. They go on and on. Twenty-five calls by lunchtime. These words are the second cousins of the bombs, as anyone who’s ever been called nigger, Paki or poof knows.
Benjamin, 17, hasn’t been called a poof yet, because he barely knows it himself. And his friends definitely don’t. On Friday, as the pictures of the outrage filtered onto the screen, he was terrified. And then one of his ‘mates’ said, ‘Good. They should have killed the lot of them’.
How many times have you heard it said over the past days that it is impossible to imagine the inside of a mind that would perpetrate this kind of atrocity? But then the calls to Stonewall and the mindless assault on decency by Benjamin’s ‘friend’ start to echo the monosyllabic racist gruntings of the Lawrence suspects and the whole thing begins to take some kind of shape.
Hatred of blacks and hatred of gays breathe the same air. Despite the ‘battyman’ insults hurled by some black men at gays and the mincing tart racism of too many gay men, who call you a rice queen if you have an Asian lover or wink know ingly with a different kind of penis envy than Freud imagined if your lover is black, there is common cause against those who attack both pink and black.
The insults, the assaults and the bombs are attacking the diversity that now defines Britain. Only a few feet behind the bomber stand the seemingly benign gestures against diversity that are the House of Lords and, yes, even the silly, schoolboyish Robbie Fowler pointing at his arse.
It’s not a long stretch from the floral-patterned Baroness Young and her opposition to equalisation of the age of consent to the stunted hatred of the calls to Stonewall. The next distorted step is the bombs. If you don’t believe in equal treatment before the law, then citizenship becomes divisible.
How far is it from devaluing a lifestyle to devaluing a life? Every time little Robbie taunts Graham Le Saux for being an antique-buying, Guardian-reading fag (even though he’s married), a boy who may be gay walks home from the school changing room in tears.
And that boy’s feelings of difference are a challenge to us all because a battle is being fought for the soul of Britishness. Not by the mad bomber, but among ordinary people. And there are just two sides to the fight. Just as the war against Franco in the thirties required a plain answer to the question ‘whose side are you on?’, the eve of century demands an equally simple lead.
Is Britain a country unable to do more than fix its stare in the rear-view mirror and reverse into its white, straight, imperial past? Or is it a country that can turn a great tradition of liberal tolerance into a new identity that draws its essential strength from diversity? And there is every historical reason to do so, to break the mythical hold that the white Anglo-Saxon Brit has on the imagining of our identity.
Even schoolchildren know that this country has been invaded more times than Madonna. We are the ultimate host nation. The bigotry unleashed by the bombs and the bigotry that killed Stephen Lawrence is a last-ditch stand against a new idea of Britain.
The bombs, by no accident placed in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, are merely the very bottom of a food chain of prejudice that discriminates against blacks, gays, Jews in all walks of life simply for who they are. And the prejudice says they cannot be British simply because they are different.
To stand up to the bombs, to stand up to prejudice is to raise a hurrah for diversity and to spit in the eye of all those who would divide society into deserving and undeserving citizens, whether those voices are raised in the House of Lords, on the Liverpool pitch or by cowards skulking with hold-alls of death in places where people are just being themselves – both ordinary and different and definitely British.
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