Commentary Magazine


Antique Courage

I love old books and I (mostly) like the gentle souls who sell them. Yet an elderly, convalescent antiquarian bookseller seems an improbable hero in the war on terror. Arthur Burton-Garnett deserves a medal for giving chase to a suicide bomber who had just failed to kill him and his fellow-passengers on a London subway train.

This is one of several extraordinary stories to emerge from the trial of six men who are accused of attempting a repetition of the 7/7 London bombings two weeks later, on July 21, 2005. According to the prosecution, Ramzi Mohammed tried to detonate his bomb as the train travelled between Stockwell and Oval stations just south of the River Thames.

Mohammed is alleged to have turned so that his backpack, containing a home-made bomb, pointed towards a young mother, Nadia Baro, with her nine-month-old baby in a buggy. He then set off his device, but only the detonator exploded, sounding like a large firecracker. Most of the passengers fled to the next carriage, but Mrs. Baro was left behind. A middle-aged off-duty fireman, Angus Campbell, helped her to get away. As the train drew into Oval station, he told the driver on the intercom: “Don’t open the doors!” Even though this was only two weeks after the carnage of 7/7, the driver ignored this request, and Mohammed ran out of the train. A retired engineer, George Brawley, tried to grab him, but he broke free.

At this point, Mr. Burton-Garnett decided to give chase. Though the fugitive was a third of his age and highly dangerous, the unarmed septuagenarian bookseller was fearless. He ran up the escalator after Mohammed, shouting: “Stop that man! Get the police!” In his own words, Mr. Burton-Garnett “tore after him but he was about nine or ten stair treads ahead of me. Halfway up I sort of ran out of steam. I was just recovering from a gall-bladder operation, otherwise I think I might have been a bit faster.”

What would have happened if he had caught Mohammed probably didn’t occur to him. It is surely significant that a man of Mr. Burton-Garnett’s age and health would be so careless of his own safety. Mr. Brawley and Mr. Campbell were also older men. Younger people are much less likely to feel an obligation to intervene in such situations, having been warned by the police and brought up by their parents not to do so. They learn that the “streetwise” thing to do if they see a crime being committed is to run away. I do not wish to disparage our youth: after all, the majority of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are in their teens or twenties. And plenty of young civilians are not afraid to have a go at criminals and terrorists. But in doing so they go against the grain of an overprotective culture.

The inspiring message of the passengers on Flight 93, who prevented an even worse catastrophe on 9/11, is that a war in which the suicide bomber is a key weapon can only be won if civilians defy regulations and rely on their own initiative.

Next time I open an old book, I shall think of Mr. Burton-Garnett. He may belong in the gallery of English eccentrics, but he is a hero nevertheless. Where manliness is mocked and cowardice is institutionalized, you need to be eccentric to be brave. There is something both comic and moving about the image of an erudite gentleman, more accustomed to leafing through old folios, in hot pursuit of an alleged suicide bomber who thought nothing of killing a mother and child in cold blood.