Joan Smith: Blood and circuses

The Spectacle: It was in this compulsory feel-good atmosphere that the terrorists struck - the second piece of emotional manipulation in less than a week
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It felt, said a friend, like living in the Colosseum for a week: first the bread and circuses of Live8 and the giant party that followed London's successful Olympics bid, then the mesmerising pictures of blood-spattered survivors being helped away from the sites of Thursday's atrocities in the capital. Those of us who live in London or have friends in the city spent hours after the terrorist attacks calling and texting each other, driven by the need to know that our loved ones were safe - and an urge to acknowledge our shared humanity in defiance of the nihilism of the bombers.

The compassion and quiet heroism of strangers on these occasions - passers-by and emergency workers who rush to help, sometimes risking their own lives - proves that the impulse to connect is stronger than the terrorists' ambition to destroy. Yet once we had established that our friends and relatives had not been caught up in the bombings - aware, of course, of how lucky we were, a thought reinforced 24 hours later by the sight of relatives desperately clutching photographs of the missing - the problem of how to get through the rest of the day remained. It was hard to return to ordinary tasks unconnected with the terrible events, but the alternative was to relive the initial shock by watching the rolling news coverage - the same dilemma that millions of people faced on 11 September 2001.

Since the suicide attacks on the East Coast of the US nearly four years ago, it has become apparent that the terrorists we refer to collectively as al-Qa'ida (without much solid information about how they are organised or the links between them) specialise in a type of atrocity that forces us into the role of helpless spectators. Engaged in a form of asymmetrical conflict, they have resorted to creating a series of spectacles - flying planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, bombing tourists in discotheques in Bali, blowing up commuter trains in Madrid - that have flooded the world's media with awesome scenes of carnage and destruction.

On Thursday it was London's turn, and the horror I felt when I saw the injured emerging from familiar Tube stations was compounded by an awareness that it had been orchestrated as surely as the gladiatorial contests that used to be staged in Roman amphitheatres. The difference is that the 55,000 spectators who filled the Colosseum chose to watch these deadly events in which slaves fought to the death with each other or with wild animals. We did not elect to be witnesses of the horrors rained on our capital city but we could not help feeling the emotions - shock, anger, fear - that the terrorists wanted to provoke in each of us.

Many people have commented on the abrupt and dizzying way in which the previous day's jubilation, prompted by the International Olympic Committee's announcement that London is to host the 2012 Olympic Games, turned to horrified disbelief. Most people I have spoken to also assume that the timing was a coincidence, with the bombings intended to disrupt the G8 summit at Glen-eagles. Yet it is almost as if the terrorists decided to match spectacle with spectacle, striking only hours after Wednesday's Olympic triumphalism and the evangelical fervour of Live8 a few days before. In all the praise showered on these latter events, little has been written about the emotional manipulation inherent in each of them - or the uneasy relationship it has to democratic values. The organisers of Live8 were rightly criticised for their failure to include African artists - with the exception of Youssou N'Dour, bizarrely featured in a duet with Dido - from the main stage in Hyde Park, but that was only one of its disquieting aspects. As I listened to one white pop star after another exhorting us to think of Africa - an Africa which had only one narrative, a child dying every three seconds from hunger or disease - I couldn't help recoiling from what seemed to me neo-colonial stereotypes.

Not every country in Africa is in crisis and they have different problems: what does South Africa have in common with Burkina Faso or Morocco? Bob Geldof's simplistic rhetoric, with its echoes of American evangelists such as Billy Graham, is annoying enough - but it also raises questions about who he represents. On this occasion, the concerns of Geldof and Bono have struck a popular chord, but I'm not sure I want to live in a world shaped by the selective and self-congratulatory indignation of rock stars.

In fact, for all that Geldof harangues our elected representatives, he is not averse to snuggling up to them - literally, in the case of his weirdly feminised MTV performance with Tony Blair, when he rested his head girlishly on the Prime Minister's shoulder. Even before the summit, it was clear that he was pushing at an open door as far as Blair and Gordon Brown were concerned, given their public commitment to increase aid and reduce debt in Africa. Indeed, critics of Geldof might well argue that the chief effect of Live8, perversely, was to push action on climate change down the Gleneagles agenda.

Immediately before the summit, Blair jetted off to Singapore, where five nations were bidding against each other in the hope of persuading the IOC to bestow the 2012 Games on their favoured cities. Hardly anyone seemed to think it was demeaning for an elected leader to go cap in hand to this self-appointed body, which has now achieved a position of such power that it can demand rash promises of public investment and grandiose building schemes from national governments.

The chorus of congratulation that followed the announcement on Wednesday lunchtime displayed British chauvinism at its worst, as one commentator after another boasted that London would stage the best Games ever. (No wonder the French get fed up with us from time to time.) Dissenting voices - those of us who do not care for sport, who dislike the rampant commercialism of the Olympic Games and remember the financial fiasco of the Millennium Dome - were drowned out in the second piece of emotional manipulation in less than a week.

It was in this compulsory feel-good atmosphere, reminiscent of the emotional correctness that followed the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, that the terrorists struck. Ironically, one of the few things we can say for certain about the unknown bombers is that they are as intolerant of dissent and diversity as the autocratic regimes that spawned Osama bin Laden and his associates. And while it is true that we have to get on with our lives, overcoming our fear of using buses or the London Underground, the most powerful step we can take to demonstrate our determination to defeat the bombers is to reassert our own values. That means more vigorous debate, less soupy unanimity - and less crowd-pleasing of the type Juvenal rightly dismissed as panem et circenses.