Sunday, 1 May 2011

The narrative(s) of 7-7 and their implications for policy and practice

Following the recent inquest into the London bombings of July 7th 2005 the Coroner’s report will be delivered this Friday (6th May 2011).

Everyone who has followed the story of the events themselves, plus the inquest into the events some five years later, has had a view on what happened - whether it be admiration, indignation or both.

In the months immediately following the bombings, I carried out a research study on the experiences and actions of survivors. I have also been asked to speak about this event on numerous occasions to many types of audiences over the past five years. When we talk about the London bombings, one thing I have noticed is the way that the narrative of the event has changed over time.

But that’s not quite accurate. There never was a single unitary narrative of the events – it was always disputed and struggled over. But different versions have come to the fore in the mass media at different times. And journalists contact people like me asking us to speak to one or other of these narratives. Of course I have tried to argue for the particular account I think best fits what happened, but that isn’t always the version that some journalists (and others) want to hear.

When the bombs went off that morning in July 2005, I was on the London underground myself. I had just got onto a crowded platform when a dull monotonic announcement requested that everybody leave the station immediately. No explanation was given, and the public response was one of grumbling, grudging compliance. Then, still not knowing why the tubes weren’t running, I joined thousands of others all walking their way to work across London: a surreal experience. At the time, I had an exhibition at the Royal Society. It was only when I arrived that we were told the news – that people were coming out of some tube stations blackened with soot, that there had been explosions. I was at the Royal Society to exhibit our virtual-reality experiment on mass evacuation behaviour from an underground rail station. I was bracing myself then for press headlines with the usual clichés of mass panic and pandemonium, against which my message about commuter behaviour in emergencies would be swamped. But I was wrong. Quite a different set of clichés were mobilized instead.

British bulldog

The dominant theme in the immediate aftermath was one of resilience. But a particular species of resilience. Britain coped. The emergency services were stretched but all coped. Londoners are a tough lot. After all, they had experience of IRA bombs years ago. The British Bulldog spirit prevailed. The implication – although not stated – was that nationals of other countries might not have displayed such calm, order and dignity in the face of threat and carnage. ‘We’ have the stiff upper lip, after all.

Two weeks later, however, the British were presented as a bit more vulnerable, apparently reacting with fear and nervousness to a second – albeit failed – terrorist attack. But, later, as those present took to the witness box, this picture of panic late gave way to one of heroism as the actions of those who tackled the would-be bombers were described.

The heroism narrative

It was a ‘heroism’ narrative that has, recurrently, been used in some quarters to explain what happened among the survivors at 7-7. The idea has been a preoccupation of journalists – who want to know whether there was a particular type of ‘personality’ who was active or cooperative in emergencies such as 7-7. Were there born leaders among the sheep? What kind of people reacted with courage and decisiveness when others were frozen with fear or panicking?

One of the accounts of the immediate aftermath of the bombings, which emerged from the inquest, thus highlighted the bravery of a small number of (named) individuals who risked their own lives for others. Indeed, what is said to be all the more remarkable about this is the backdrop of ‘bystander apathy’. The narrative suggests that the non-heroic were actually worse than useless in their response.

In our study of the London bombs, we found similar stories of heroism from those we interviewed who were on the bombed trains. The same narrative was also prevalent in the many survivors’ stories from 9-11 – both in popular publications and in the academic literature. But in both these events we found two other features of the public response to put these examples of heroic help into a slightly different perspective than the news stories. In fact one which puts the rest of humanity into a rather better light than that offered by the heroism narrative.

The first thing to say is that heroic help was indeed the exception. That kind of help where the helper risked their own life and safety for others occurred – and in all cases that we are aware of these others were complete strangers; but it was rare.

On the other hand, we know that the survivors were left alone in the bombed out carriages for some time before the emergency services reached them. And yet many did survive despite their horrific injuries. The second thing to say then is that mundane helping was commonplace. Where the journalist always wants to talk about the exceptional behaviour of the few, as a psychologist I am interested in the behaviour of the many. That is actually not only more interesting but more important. If many people had behaved entirely selfishly – or had panicked – many more would have suffered and died. Many of the acts of help – such as sharing water, offering words of reassurance, sometimes even tying tourniquets – were not necessarily heroic in the sense of involving a risk to one’s own life.

The third point is that many of the acts that took place between people in the bombed out trains, as they lie there and as they managed to make their way out, might not even be classed as help at all. They were more like acts of courtesy or respect. They were the small acts of social acknowledgement that allow people to coordinate – especially in situations where there is little safe space available. These mundane acts of courtesy helped people to survive collectively as much as the acts of heroism, for they provided spiritual uplift and hope as well as physical relief:

I remember walking towards the stairs and at the top of the stairs there was a
guy coming from the other direction. I remember him kind of gesturing;
kind of politely that I should go in front—‘you first’ that. And I was struck I
thought God even in a situation like this someone has kind of got manners
really. Little thing but I remember it. (quoted in Drury, Cocking, & Reicher, 2009, p. 79)

The events of 9-11 have been the subject of even more stories of personal heroism than 7-7, but in fact the evacuation of the twin towers required relatively little in the way of heroic help but rather a lot of mundane coordination. Relatively few among those evacuating were injured; most only required others to move down the stairs together with them at a shared pace, to hold the door for the next person, to respect their pace and so on. This, not numerous acts of heroism, was what enabled so many people to survive that disaster.

The Emergency Services as hero and villain

The Emergency Services were at first depicted as collectively and organizationally capable and competent in the news accounts of the bombings. The Inquest added to these stories of individual heroism.

However one of the predominant accounts that emerged in the inquest was of the emergency services as at fault in their response – a reappraisal of the original gloss put on their actions on the day. The police radios didn’t work underground. There was a delay in sending ambulances to the scene of the attacks. And, perhaps, most upsetting in the eyes of some of the public and mass media, the fire brigade did not go down the tunnels immediately.

In a recent interview on the BBC, Jennifer Cole of RUSI argued against this easy attack that has been worked up on the emergency services. She pointed out that while there may have been legitimate complaints about the command and control of the emergency services, the actual behaviour of the emergency services personnel on the ground was probably as good as it could have been. For example, the criticisms of the fire brigade for not going down the tunnel seemed to be based on the assumption that they should be acting as paramedics when they were not equipped to do so.

The key point is that it is not clear that, had the emergency services acted differently, more lives would have been saved. We shall see on Friday whether the Coroner’s report bears this argument out, but it fits with the analysis we provided based on our own study of the London bombs, and indeed it has deeper and broader implications.

These are that, in emergencies, the public – including the victims themselves – are inevitably the first responders. They are on the scene first; they are more numerous than the emergency services; and, importantly, they are motivated, competent and mostly calm enough to act effectively.

The major complaint of those on the London underground trains that were affected by the bombs on July 7th 2005 was the lack of communication about what was going on. A lack of information creates unnecessary anxiety and prevents people from making informed judgements about their actions.

A major recommendation from many of those who were survivors or witnesses to the events on the day was that first aid kits should be made readily available and accessible on the tube trains. People had to improvise bandages from their own clothing. Publicly available first aid kits would be a recognition of the fact that the public are not only motivated and capable of acting as the fourth emergency service in any major incident, but that they are also expected to play this role.

Competing narratives of mass emergency behaviour

I started researching emergencies such as 7-7 because I was interested in group behaviour. But I have since found the way that behaviour is talked about in such events is of importance in its own right. Narratives of resilience and heroism are, like the well-known media image of ‘mass panic’, not simply descriptions of events. They can operate as rationales for practice, justifications for decisions, and reasons for praising some and blaming others. They are highly consequential. If everyone is going to panic, there is no point installing communication systems. But if resilience is widespread – more widespread than the heroic few or the bulldog British – then there is every reason to acknowledge and facilitate public involvement in their own safely and security.


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009). The nature of collective resilience: Survivor reactions to the 2005 London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 27, 66-95.

Drury, J., Novelli, D., & Stott, C. (2013). Psychological disaster myths in the perception and management of mass emergencies. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(11), 2259-2270.

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