This has been a dreadful week, hasn’t it? Well, I’m sure loads of good things have happened, and there are people out there celebrating birthdays, vacations, promotions, engagements, a new job, a dream come true. Yet it’s so sad that all these wonderful things happen while there are people out there bent on killing. Misguided people, mad people – some of them in positions of power. People who are misinformed or so damaged by their own experiences, that the only thing they can do is cause harm to other human beings. Or people who want to be somebody, who want to have their fifteen minutes of fame, but in a terrible way. I’ve written about bombs before on this blog. Come close to a terrorist bomb and you don’t ever, ever forget it. My experience of that dreadful proximity happened in London over thirty years ago.
Writing is my way of life. I am not only a storyteller, but when I’m trying to work things out, I write. I write about conversations, memories, people … and not necessarily with any conclusions. So this is just me, writing ….
One of my friends, a paramedic in southern California, told me that, after the London bombings on July 7th, 2005, her department held a session where they watched film of the emergency response teams, and the speed with which triage tents were set up, and everyone did what they had to do like clockwork – “We wouldn’t know how to do that here,” she said. “We haven’t had the constant practice at dealing with large-scale disasters of that type.” “Pray you never do,” I said.
But she had a point. I remember, after 9-11, telling another friend, a British military man well-versed in the nature of terrorism, that I was shocked because people at the airports here were still leaving baggage unattended. I explained that, when I had reported a lone backpack at an airport, I had been told by the official, “Oh don’t worry, someone will pick it up soon.” My friend offered this explanation: “But Jackie, here in Britain we’ve had time to become vigilant – when you've gone through years during which time not a week goes by without something happening, you get sharper, and you don’t even have to think about it.” Because I worked in London in the 70’s and 80’s, I am always suspicious of lone backpacks in particular, and I tend to steer around trash cans – I don’t even have to consciously consider it. However, on my first visit back to the UK after living in the USA for a few years, I was at Charing Cross station. I had an empty drink carton in my hand and was looking everywhere for a trash can, and couldn’t find one. So, I asked a florist who was setting up her stall. “You’ve been away too long, love – you’ve forgotten the bombs.” Well, actually, I had only forgotten that those trash cans had been removed – for the very reason that they’re an ideal place to hide a bomb filled with nails, or ball bearings. Yet there’s another reason why this bombing in Boston, and the horrific loss of life and the maiming of innocents has sickened me beyond measure.
I love Boston – was there just a couple of weeks ago on my book tour – and I remember so well my first visit to the city. I was working in London for a company headquartered not far from Boston, and was sent out to the office with my boss for a series of sales meetings. Very exciting – I was about twenty-five and it was my first overseas business trip. Well, you know how it is, at the end of the day everyone’s pretty tired, but our hosts were determined that the British contingent would not be going back to their impersonal hotel rooms, so they took us to a bar where you could get a wholesome meal and relax. It was while we were there, laughing over something that had happened during the day, that I became aware of men going from table to table and people reaching for their wallets or into their pockets and putting money – quite a lot of money – into an old coffee can. I thought it was a collection for one of the regulars who’d fallen on hard times, or a local hospital. Something like that. Then they came to our table, and because I couldn’t quite believe what was happening, it took me a second or two to really take in what they were doing. They asked me to put my hand in my pocket and put money into a can for the IRA. I felt sick, really sick, because these guys were an intimidating group, and my co-workers, to get them to move on, were all pulling out folding money. I looked at my boss, and we both shook our heads. I had seen what bombs could do, I had been to Belfast and I had been in London, and there was no way I was going to have anything to do with it. Such was the response to our refusal, that our co-workers decided we had to get the heck out of there.
And I still remember trying to explain myself. “But they just don’t understand,” I said. “They just don’t understand where that money’s going, and what these bombs do to human beings – to little children, for God’s sake.”
I confess, I’ve been feeling pretty sick about that ever since Monday, ever since I flicked on my laptop and saw photos of the carnage in Boston. And I’ve been trying to get to grips with it in my mind - though I can't blame myself for my thinking at twenty-five, or what sparked my response to those men collecting money. You see, I think it is beyond tragic that people anywhere are put in a position of having to get used to violence and terror – and I don’t care if that violence is in a drug-addled Mexican border town, or a London sink estate, or whether it’s Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, or New York or Boston or a school full of precious children somewhere in the world. We shouldn’t have to get used to terrible things. I hope I never cease to be shocked and saddened, or feel the wrench of memory in my heart. I wish I didn’t give trash cans such a wide berth, and take a second look at people with obviously heavy back-packs when I’m walking down a city street, and without even thinking. But I do.
So, that’s me, just writing out loud. Naively trying to work it all out after so many years.
As we hold the people of Boston in our hearts – and, indeed, the people of so many countries, for the Boston Marathon is an international event representing the world’s citizenry – I wish you peace this weekend, and joy. Life goes on in tandem with remembrance and respect. And living our lives as well as we can and reaching out to each other in community is the very best we can do in the face of terror, in my humble opinion.
And as an addendum (I am now in Toronto, Canada, checking my post before it goes out tomorrow), I have just remembered the website started just after the London 7/7 bombings, with the message WE ARE NOT AFRAID. People from all over the world came together to post their photos and the same message, in solidarity with London. Solidarity is a good word - it's what people who create terror want to destroy, our connection to each other. But as has been seen in London and other cities where such things have happened, it will bring the people of Boston even closer.
Still writing and thinking ....
Still writing and thinking ....