Saturday, July 30, 2005

Suicide bombing at Greenwich

In Greenwich on Thursday afternoon:

Two members of the Observatory staff were still in the building at 4.45 p.m. This they described as working "late" - all the other staff had left by that time. Mr Thackeray and Mr Hollis were both in the Lower Computing Room when they were startled by a "sharp and clear detonation, like a shell going through the air". They looked out to see the door porter running across the courtyard and rapidly followed him so as to be able to look down the hillside North of the Observatory into Greenwich Park. They saw a park-warden and some school-boys running towards a figure that appeared to be crouched on the zig-zag path below the Observatory.

Racing down, their first thought was that the man had shot himself, but the scene they encountered was unexpected and horrific. The park-warden was holding a man who, despite massive injuries, was still alive and able to speak. The man's left hand was completely missing and he had a gaping hole in his stomach. Soon a doctor and stretcher were fetched from the nearby Seaman's Hospital, to where he was carried. The man died about 30 minutes later, having said nothing about who he was or what had happened.

On the afternoon of Thursday 15 February 1894, that is.

Subsequent investigations - as this account shows - revealed that the bomber was a Frenchman by the name of Martial Bourdin. He was a member of the London-based Club Autonomie, which attracted foreign anarchists. After the Greenwich incident many of its members were deported, though none was charged with a criminal offence. (There is an account of Bourdin's funeral here.)

It is hard to discern any rational purpose behind the bombing, and later anarchist sympathisers have generally put it down to the influence of an agent provocateur. Certainly, Bourdin's brother-in-law was widely believed to be a police agent.

Today Greenwich would be a historical curiosity if it were not for the influence it had on Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. This novel tells the story of a young man who is duped into taking a bomb to Greenwich and trips and falls, setting it off, before he can plant it. The instigator is his brother-in-law, ostensibly an anarchist but in reality the paid agent of a foreign agency.

I might have written "contains spoilers" here, but Conrad spells out all this, or allows you to guess it, early on. The book's real interest is in the fate of the characters left behind and in its satire of wider society.

Here there are certainly contemporary resonances. The Secret Agent was published in 1907 and nominally deals with events 20 years or so earlier, but it is not hard to detect the anxieties of the Edwardian age in it.

Then, just as today, foreign governments were complaining that the British authorities were lax and allowed radicals and terrorists too much freedom to operate here. The confidence of the Victorian period, when such protests would be ignored, was already ebbing, and in 1911 Churchill would superintend his extraordinary Siege of Sidney Street. (See also his defence of his conduct.)

A particularly memorable character in the novel is The Professor - a thwarted scientist and expert in explosives who makes himself a walking bomb, always holding the detonator in his hand. Only this can make him feel powerful, and Conrad generally sees terrorists and radicals as morally weak - though he is little kinder to any other sector of society.

In painting terrorism as the resort of damaged characters rather than the work of some fiendish criminal mastermind, Conrad shows affinity with the general line the Spiked website has taken on the London bombings.

As Brendan O'Neill says in his essay "Creating the enemy":

The real problem of terrorism, in terms of both its origins and its impact on contemporary society, begins at home, in the struggle for moral consensus and moral authority. Instead of launching wars in far-off lands, surely what our societies need are debates about what we stand for and why; about the values we hold dear and wish to pass on to future generations; about our vision of the Good Society and how we might achieve it. Such debates might help to move us away from the deep moral uncertainties that can give rise to nihilistic violence, and make us more resilient against those who execute such violence.

Conrad was too sceptical about politicians to think things are that easy, but he would surely share O'Neill's rejection of the platitudes of the "War on Terror".

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hitchcock's film version - in which the target is Oxford Circus and the result is the destruction of a double decker bus - is eerily close to the recent attacks.
Thanks for mentioning the Aollo Group

Peter

Anonymous said...

the central issue of Muslim terror, in Beslan, London, Bali, East Timor, Israel, Iraq, Kashmir, Madrid, Tunis, Istanbul, Buenos Aires, and Munich is the rejection of modern society and fundamental modern principles.

Muslims want the things that Modernity brings, financial, social, personal liberation, success, and freedom. At the same time they must reject (for Islam rejects it) the scientific materialism and secular rationalism that underpin the Modernity of the West, broadly speaking.

Terror is the magic sword that allows them to indulge in magical thinking, in the naive belief that the West and the Modern world will simply collapse under their magical will. See the Sioux Ghost dancers, or Charles Taylors Buck Naked Brigade in Liberia.

Ultimately the conflict is between the "normal" of modern society that adapts to rapid change, in technical, social, political, and personal levels, and the "normal" of a society that hasn't change much or at all since the sixth century. It's the real cause and recipe for bloody disaster.

The modern "normal" is simply far too powerful, and ultimately ruthless. The pre-Modern societies making the blood, noise and fuss, will be eventually ruthlessly crushed.

Millions in Africa and Latin America suffer grinding poverty and oppression, they do not engage in mass murder in London or New York. It's affluent, Western-educated, self-hating Muslims who hate their desire for Modernity and so reject it with monstrous murder.

Like I said, bet on Modernity winning. Simply by being roused enough to erase from existence the pre-Modern societies by whatever means is handy. Ugly but usually happens. Josephus and the Jewish War provides a good template.

Andrew Toye said...

There is no "rational" or "modernist" explanation for the events described above. The point about the 19th century anarchist terrorist is (I think) that suicide murder is not exclusive to Islam, or indeed to any religious faith - it is a product of mind control, mass hysteria, hypnotism, whatever technique is used, in which the subject is convinced of the need to "let go" of his/her critical faculties for a 'greater good.' Once self-control is surrendered, anything is possible, however extreme. Things like hypnotherapy can of course be of great benefit, but be careful who you sell your soul to.

bellatrys said...

Andrew, right on. And good for you, Jonathan. I thought I was the only one who had read/remembered the Secret Agent all these years (obsessed with Conrad in high school, which has served me well in comprehending contemporary world politics) and the general anarchist-bomb-throwing-paranoiac tone of turn-of-the-last-century society.

What anonymous doesn't realize is that every time things fall into chaos, right before it you have people talking about how "this modern age of progress has made such backsliding impossible." Same in the Enlightenment, same up to WWI, same up to WWII. --Funny, that.

bellatrys said...

I wouldn't exactly use the Romans as a good example of the triumph of Modernity either. (nor civilization.) Not only were they pretty tribal and barbaric when you look past their propaganda, there was this little problem about their empire collapsing under its own weight and, well, not being around any more, and being replaced with all sorts of un-"Modern" cultures for the subsequent millennia. (Not to mention that calling some behaviors "modern" and others not, sounds sort of arbitrary when you're describing things that have coexisted for all those millennia...)

Anonymous said...

How is this a suicide bombing?
It looks like, most likely, an 'own goal', or less likely, straightforward suicide.
'Suicide bombing' is not simply blowing yourself up, but bringing a bomb to a target and blowing yourself up with the target. Where is the target in this incident from the 1890s?
A very large proportion of IRA volunteers who died in the recent Troubles died in 'own goals', while either making or transporting explosives, comes with the territory.