John Mullin: Sustained by spirit of humanity

One week on from Sousse, ten years on from 7/7, we remain at risk but have the example of survivors and of victims’ families to give us some hope, however unlikely, writes John Mullin

Tourists lay flowers on the beach at Sousse a week after a jihadist gunman killed 38 tourists, 30 of them British. Picture: Getty
Tourists lay flowers on the beach at Sousse a week after a jihadist gunman killed 38 tourists, 30 of them British. Picture: Getty

The human spirit is truly remarkable. During yesterday’s one minute silence for the victims of the Tunisian massacre, my mind went back to another mass slaying – and the incredible resilience of so-called ordinary people, and of how, even in the midst of unimaginable horror, such impressive, innate character offers vital consolation, and perhaps even a lodestar for recovery.

Next Tuesday, it will be ten years since four British-born suicide bombers blew up three London Underground trains and a bus. They killed 52 people – fellow Muslims among them – and injured 800 more. The carnage was scarcely imaginable, the worst attack on UK streets since the Blitz.

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But it was also to deliver the most overwhelming demonstration of the survival instinct any of us can have ever witnessed. Out of such terror, hope, altruism, empathy can trump all.

Take Phil Duckworth. That morning, he had one of those petty squabbles with his wife we all have with our families because he had tarried in bed beyond the 6:45 alarm call. He was wearing his lucky white shirt and tie, the same combination he had selected when successfully interviewed for his job at an investment back near Aldgate. He was finishing off another chapter of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons as he moved to the doors to get off the tube. So far, so mundane.

An hour or so later, he was dead. He was among a pile of bodies in the destroyed remains of the second carriage, and had been written off by the emergency services. He was naked, save for a sock and a shoe, his clothes blown clean off, and his skin was blackened.

One rescue worker, trying to distract survivors as they passed the mangled remains of victims, was suddenly distracted by movement out of the corner of his eye. With one last burst of adrenaline, Phil Duckworth had stood up. He had – somehow – survived. Talk about resurrection.

Or Martine Wright. She – like millions more – was excited by London winning the 2012 Olympics. The city’s victory had been announced the previous day. She was reading over the shoulder of a fellow commuter when the carriage was engulfed in blinding light.

Martine looked up, puzzled. There was a white trainer dripping in blood on the roof. Hadn’t she put on a new pair of brilliant white trainers that morning? She had lost both her legs above her knee. Seven years later, she went on to represent Britain at the Paralympics in the sitting volleyball.

Peter Zimonjic? He too survived, and, soon afterwards, his wife, Donna, who had decided against the Circle Line train that morning because she was so heavily pregnant, went into labour. His daughter, Anja Olivia, their first child, tipped the scales at 7lbs and 7ozs: his very own 7/7.

And Thelma Storer was lead lawyer on the London Olympics bid. She was on her way to work to finalise key legal documents. She thought of her son, Louis, five, before unconsciousness closed in.

She too, lost a leg, and – what an indignity – had to fight hard to get an artificial limb matching her black skin colour. Six years later, she finally got back on the Tube, and, shaking and terrified, recreated her last Underground journey, even refusing the offer of a seat. This is her victory – and is some of the most moving footage you can imagine.

Amid these incredible stories – no doubt repeated across the globe with other nationalities and with all religions when sudden, mass death comes calling – I was most struck by six words on one programme this week. One survivor muses, almost sotte voce: “Where are we, ten years on?”

What happened in Tunisia – where 38 were slain, including 30 Britons – provides a painful answer: probably, far further back. The world feels a much more dangerous, unpredictable place than even in 2005, when it was pretty grim, and now nowhere is safe.

No-one, it seems, has much of a clue what to do about it. Nor even to have much of a stomach to analyse coolly. Ours, it feels, is The Policy of Crossed Fingers.

After 7/7, some of us who vehemently opposed to the Iraq War, who argued that weapons of mass destruction were a convenient fudge and would never be found, could indulge ourselves in an I-told-you-so exercise. Just as Iraq was never a haven for Islamic extremism before the war, so we had warned that intervention in Iraq would risk terror on the streets of the UK.

Now? Al-Qaeda look like choir-boys compared to so-called Islamic State. Whereas a decade ago, radicalised British-born Muslims were a shocking rarity, now hundreds of British kids are travelling to Syria to join up, and we are inured to the latest tales of flights to Turkey and car journeys across the border.

Before Saddam was deposed, there was some sort of rough stability in the Middle-East. Now even Tunisia, the one country where the Arab Spring – remember that? – is deemed a success provides more IS fighters than any other and is backdrop to murderous attacks on folks enjoying the sun.

And what is our response? David Cameron complains about the BBC labelling the enemy Islamic State without the all-important adjective “so-called”. He’s wrong, by the way: the BBC has generally been scrupulous on this, not that anyone can seriously think it matters that much. There is a renewed flying of the kite – rest assured, that is all it is – to target Syria with air strikes.

In the coverage of this, one aspect is forgotten: when the Commons voted it down two years ago, the proposal was to tackle Assad, and into the vacuum has come the new target: IS, Isis, Isil, Daesh, call them what you will, they are still the same bunch.

That is the trouble with a one-time honourable policy of liberal interventionism. Get it wrong, as Tony Blair did, and it is dead for generations.

Newspaper columnists have the luxury of hand-wringing, of criticising, and offering no solutions. But I would say this: opponents of the Iraq War wouldn’t have got us here.

In the meantime, as the politicians and pundits squabble, and hope for the best, let’s hold on to one truth. The human spirit is indeed an amazing gift, and that it can sustain us in these terrible times.