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London Terrorism: Stealing the Spotlight from Africa

Vivienne Walt

Journalist Vivienne Walt was visiting London from her home in Paris when the terrorist attacks struck.

When the overground suburban train chugged into London early this rainy morning, and then stalled on the track between two stations, there was the usual muffled grouching in the packed car. The woman sitting next to me called her mom on her cell phone and told her in a mixture of Greek and English that the trains appeared to be a mess -- again. The tall black man in the seat across from me crumpled his copy of The Times and looked nervously at his watch.

By the time we crawled into King's Cross station, the digital clock over the platform said 9.25 a.m. -- 15 minutes late. Hundreds of passengers jamming the entrance to the underground station were harried. They had jobs to get to and things to do. The lone official in his uniform blue jacket calmly told the passengers that "an electrical problem" had shut the line. One by one, each passenger asked directions to where they needed to go -- and got an elaborate patient answer. "Go out, turn right. Take the 214 bus madam," he said to one. "The 76 will get ya there, sir," to another. It looked like this was just another commuter moment in a city with a notoriously bad train service.

This time, though, it wasn't. People poured out of the station on to Euston Road, jamming the sidewalks. Tourists wheeled large suitcases along the edge of the sidewalk, bumping against scores of police officers in neon-yellow vests. And then, as ambulances and police cars began screaming down the streets, their sirens wailing, these were the first hints that something enormous, grim, and so inevitable had happened. Even then, police and train officials tried to affect a kind of mass calm by telling people that nothing very sinister had occurred. This was not the raw trauma of 9/11, when New Yorkers ran weeping frantically up Broadway. There is no mountain of burning rubble from destroyed buildings. Today's carnage was mostly underground, and out of sight.

"This week has been an emotional knockout punch in this town. Less than 19 hours before the attacks, I was pushing my way through thousands of people celebrating the Olympics bid in Trafalgar Square."

This week has been an emotional knockout punch in this town. Less than 19 hours before the attacks on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after I flew in from my home in Paris, I was pushing my way through thousands of people in Trafalgar Square. My Time Magazine editor and I were on our way to have lunch at a restaurant on the far side of the square.

People were flinging themselves into each other's arms; giddy at the news that London had been picked to host the 2012 Olympics. I told my editor that the last time I was in London, a few months ago, about 100,000 people had jammed the square that time too, to hear Nelson Mandela speak. He gushed that he loved this city -- a place that really knew how to toast events with a grand sense of occasion. In fact, it was only last Saturday that hundreds of thousands of people had jammed Hyde Park for the mammoth Live8 concert.

It's hard to believe it tonight, but only a few days ago, we were focused on African poverty, intent to make it the major pressing issue of the moment. The eight men holed up in Scotland for their G8 summit were expected to emerge today to announce they were canceling the debt of the world's poorest countries -- virtually all of them in Africa. But yet again, the world's poor were made to wait. It was as if those who plotted the London attacks decided to seize back the spotlight, which had briefly pivoted away from their demonic cause.

"Yet again, the world's poor were made to wait. It was as if those who plotted the London attacks decided to seize back the spotlight, which had briefly pivoted away from their demonic cause."

Africa might win out in the end, though. It seems that focusing on the continent's dire hardships is not just a matter of bettering people's lives. After nearly four years of knife-edge tension over terror threats -- real and imagined -- and bitter divisions over the Iraq war, here was an issue that could unite us all. We could rock to beloved old tunes like "Hey Jude" and "Message in a Bottle" in vast open spaces, and barely stop to think about whether we might get blown up by extremists. It felt simply good. For the first time since the Iraq war began 28 months ago, we were finally recovering some lost humanitarian sense of ourselves -- however hokey the Live8 campaign appeared to some of us. It was as if for one brief lovely period, we could close our eyes and imagine that 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, had never happened.

But now that brief glimpse of life as it used to be is gone. When I ventured out tonight, my taxi circled Trafalgar Square. It was deserted, with no scrap left behind from yesterday's celebrations. On the side where London's Olympic victory was shown on a giant screen yesterday, a red London van is parked, painted with large sign: "London bus information," ready to offer advice about how to get around town. Another bad commuting day could lie ahead.

Vivienne Walt is a veteran foreign correspondent based in Paris. Born in South Africa, she has covered the war in Iraq for Time and other publications.