My wife, Jo, and I were in London when the latest terrorist attack occurred. We heard the news on BBC television around 8:45 am, just a few minutes before we were planning to head out of our hotel to catch the subway to Buckingham Palace. The announcer couched the news in gentle terms: “There’s been a security breach at the Parsons Green Station.”
It sounded mild, just a precautionary note, not much more. Besides we were catching a different line at the High Street Kensington Station – not the one running a few stops away at Parsons Green. What’s to worry about? So we ventured out anyways.
Throughout the day, we heard little more about the incident other than a few brief announcements at various subways stops directing commuters to find alternate routes and avoid Parsons Green. Only later that evening when we were watching TV, did we hear the full report. This was a terrorist act. A bomb with a timing device had gone off a bit too early to do its intended damage. Nevertheless, it injured 30 people, one a 6-year-old school boy.
Even though this was the 4th terrorist attack in the London region this year, It seemed to us that most Londoners took the news in stride. They went about their business like usual. We heard no discussion on the street, but at every venue, security was obvious.
Although we have our share of violent activity in Canada, fortunately we’ve had nothing of this scale or frequency. Mass attacks are rare. As tourists, we tried to adopt a life-goes-on attitude, but we became fundamentally different travelers in the days that followed.
We no longer took our safety for granted. We became more aware of our surroundings, of the people brushing up against us, of the sirens blaring down the street. We plotted escape routes when we visited places. We noted exit signs, the doors leading elsewhere, the flow of human traffic. I noticed for the first time, a security guard in the hotel lobby. Perhaps he’d been there all along, I couldn’t say for certain, but I breathed easier knowing he was there now.
We became more suspicious, too – of people dressed in different garb, of those with wild-eyes or unkempt looks, of those speaking different tongues or hauling strange packages. On the subway, I found myself moving away from these people, or at the very least keeping a careful watch on their every move.
When we flew out of London a few days later, security at the airport was tight. Perhaps it had been this way before, but this time I was acutely aware of the precautions being taken. When I was asked to stand by as an inspector rummaged through my carry-on and plucked out a bottle of some liquid that I’d forgotten to declare, I felt – not annoyance as I might have before – but gratitude instead. And when we stood in line for customs in Rome later that day, and I found myself beside a suitcase that someone had left unattended on the floor, I felt a surge of anxiety that refused to go away.
Terrorism maims and kills those directly affected, but in my case its tendrils reach much farther. Overnight,I become less trusting, more suspicious, more fearful, and more intolerant of differences. I accepted losses to my personal freedom without question. I believe there are many others who, like me, are building walls of protection around themselves, and casting suspicion, doubt and blame upon others in the name of safety.
Perhaps that’s the ultimate damage enacted by terrorists. Perhaps that is their ultimate goal, too.