When doing research (particularly at such a lowly level as I do), it is often difficult to see what impact, if any, it might have on the real world. Whilst I always fiercely rebuke friends/relatives/strangers-in-pubs who smugly accuse me of being a good-for-nothing student, I can be left mouth-agape and tongue-tied trying to respond to that fateful question, ‘So what’s the point in your project anyway?’. However, every so often something comes along that puts what you do into practice, and it can be a very gratifying moment when it does so.
Last week was the nine-year anniversary of the July 7 bombings. Hours before commemorators gathered to remember the attacks, the memorial in Hyde Park was found to have been covered in graffiti saying ‘4 Innocent Muslims’, ‘J7 Truth’ and ‘Blair Lied Thousands Died’. The tabloid newspapers, predictably, reacted with horror; Boris Johnson described himself as ‘shocked and saddened’ (Daily Mail); and one commentator bemoaned the fact that ‘standards have fallen in this once great country of ours’ (Daily Express).
The paint was promptly removed, but the questions it raises are not so easily erased, and the suggestion that the act was purely ‘senseless’ and ‘idiotic’ (Guardian) underestimates the more serious and more pressing issues at stake. It is clear that this was not a wanton and unplanned instance of thoughtless vandalism, but a deliberate and calculated attempt to challenge the hegemony of the national monument. Whilst there are many (indeed, perhaps a majority) who consider the July bombings to be an unjustifiable tragedy inflicted upon an innocent British public, there are clearly also those who feel that doing so ignores the wider issues at stake; issues that connect an act of terrorism in London to a complex history of war and suffering in the Middle East.
I am in no way condoning the action, nor defending those involved, but I do believe that the actions of the graffitists (who I refuse to label ‘vandals’) are understandable and must be understood. The implications of reducing the memory of an event to a singular, monolithic narrative are too often underestimated; doing so excludes a great many who feel that their own memories have been ignored. Britain is a nation whose forces have been involved in numerous morally-questionable conflicts across the globe, and it is more than possible to understand why those who have suffered as a result of such a history may perceive such unilateral commemoration as hypocritical. When such individuals and groups so often see their own memories go unrecognised, is it so incomprehensible that they should seek to assert their voices in spaces reserved for the official narrative? And are we really so surprised that their means or doing so do not conform to our standards of acceptability?
It is right that the families of the innocent victims of the July bombings are given the space and opportunity to grieve. It is right that we condemn violence. But it is also right that we try to understand memory within a broader network of factors, and that we do not champion one memory at the expense of all others. It is the critical work of academics in Collective Memory Studies to try to understand the complex dynamics at work in both public and private remembering. Doing so will allow us to approach traumatic events in a way that ensures greater reflexivity and inclusivity.