After 9/11 and with many of our parents working in the centre of London, my school lifted its nascent ban on mobile phones. Our heavy, monochrome mobiles (mine still had an antenna) would be allowed on school premises, kept in our lockers, in case we were called upon to jam the networks attempting to contact our parents. We even did a practice ‘terror drill’.
The end result was a lot of children playing snake in the playground.
It isn’t that the attacks weren’t serious. Rather it is too extreme and too dramatic. It is hard to imagine a life filled with the terror of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Now 15 years later, they are poignant and tragic; but not frightful.
Islamic Terror came to Europe in 2004, hitting Madrid’s metro system (192 dead); and in 2005, when commuters in London were the victims (52 dead). After the London bombings, much emphasis was placed on people behaving normally. They got back on their trains the next day and returned to work. The first days were tense but routine is soothing.
13th November 2015
I was in Shoreditch waiting for my friends and watching people play table football. My sister sent me a message saying “I’m safe. Check the news” and my phone promptly died.
My sister had arrived in Paris 4 hours earlier. Gunmen had shot crowds at cafés and restaurants, opened fire on a concert hall and detonated a bomb near the Stade de France only a few minutes before (130 dead).
My sister caught a taxi to her hotel and stayed in that night. But the next day she visited some of the sights and ate out in Paris. Just as the generation before us learned to live with the constant possibility of nukes raining down, we have had to accept the chance of random death.
That isn’t to say that we embrace it. The mood is souring. In November, Parisians lined the streets in a show of solidarity and monuments across the world were lit bleu, blanc et rouge. However, in July, after a truck was driven through a Bastille Day crowd (86 dead), PM Manuel Valls found little solidarity in the booing crowds in Nice.
1970s & 1980s
Fear and Terror, it is safe to say, are not sweeping across the continent. Yes, it has led to some ugly scenes (notably the burkini farce in France this summer). But largely, life has continued its usual path with its usual levels of fear and loathing.
My parents were young during the IRA’s height but my grandparents were working in London at the time. Spain were grappling with the Basques. I’ve lifted a chart from the Economist showing the extent of these attacks.
They also highlighted that while the risk of dying in a regular homicide in the US is 1 in 20,000 that of dying in a terrorist attack between 2003-13 was just 1 in 56m. The senselessness and unpredictability of terrorism is what gives it its power but personally I find the senselessness of homicidal Americans far more alarming.
A friend JD had recently been relocated to Mainz. While at uni, we twice visited the sleepy town of Bregenz, which hosts a spectacular, annual opera festival on the shores of Lake Constance. Flying in to Switzerland (without francs; we had to ration a pack of biscuits until the border), staying in Austria, walking to Lindau in Germany (for the street music festival that had ended by 9; the island town also has a puppet opera house but this too was closed), and catching a train in to Liechtenstein (where we walked through the second largest town without noticing).
In July, I went to visit his new home in Mainz. Unfortunately, the gods were against us. My flight was delayed – though not by much – and then diverted to another airport. Mainz would have to wait but I could still make our train out of Frankfurt.
A bus rushed me across the German autobahn. When suddenly the heavens opened. The rain drummed down in large, wet drops. We passed two cars that had skidded off the road but otherwise made good time. It is hard to believe (and frustrating to know) I only missed our train to Munich by a few minutes.
There was a train half an hour later (1.30 am) but it was cancelled before we could change our tickets. That afternoon, someone had shot up a shopping centre in Munich (10 dead).
It was the third attack that week and would be followed by a fourth before the weekend was out. The shooter was still at large and all transport in and out of Munich was suspended.
We thus had time for an Apfelwein in Frankfurt before boarding a train Munich-bound. After a sleepless journey, I ate a breakfast of Leberkäse and we boarded a train heading further south. An extremist claimed a few more lives and encouraged a further mistrustful and divided society. And then he receded in our minds, replaced by a new day.
The attacks may be lurking around the next corner. Or not. They are terrible and tragic. But they are also increasingly farcical and absurd. The bizarre juxtaposition of a madman, in a pitiful delusion of grandeur; of a demented, untenable belief system that wouldn’t hold up to scrutiny in Wonderland; of an outdated, suburban shopping centre; a weopon, entrenched in its earthly truth; blood and screams; it’s too absurd to live by.
My tain rolled on. We talked about the tragedy. But our weekend was not one steeped in terror.