Like many people who live and work in London I spent chunks of yesterday playing “what if?”.
It began quite early as the news of the bombs began to come through. My first concern was “what if” my partner Mimi, who travels by Tube, had got caught up in the mess. Her direct line wasn’t answered. I couldn’t get through on her mobile. The main switchboard at her workplace was constantly busy. There was no reply to my email.
After a while I heard the front door open and she was back home, having been unable to get on the Tube.
The “what if” then changed to what if she hadn’t had a task to do locally and had caught a train at the normal time.
Then another “what if”. Her company used to have its offices in Tavistock Square, where the explosion in the bus had taken place and had only moved six months before. She used to take the bus there every day and might well have been on it at the time of the explosion had they still been there.
Our “what ifs” then changed to concerns about colleagues and friends, who we knew traveled along what we thought were the effected routes.
So far we have been lucky and so far as we know nobody we know was directly effected by the bombs, though many found their normal working lives disrupted and one friend living close to the site of the bus explosion was unable to get back to his flat last night.
No doubt the “what ifs” will linger in our minds over the coming weeks and months. We will look more suspiciously at the packages and litter on the buses and the Tube. We may look at our fellow travelers and wonder whether one of them is a nutter, who has turned him or herself into a bomb, in the belief that by doing so they are winning the approval of their invisible friend.
But mostly, we will go on going on.
Yes, of course, we will be more frightened than we were before. Our fears are understandable, for we seem to be programmed to take more notice of the exceptional and the rare, than the more likely risks of everyday life. But, despite this natural reaction, it becomes particularly important not to let our fear overcome our reason.
In a post last year, I quote John Mueller of the Cato Institute, who pointed out that “Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.”
Despite more exposure to acts of terror here, the odds of any one of us or any one we know being killed our maimed in an act of this kind must be pretty similar.
Yes, of course, we should all feel sympathy and concern for the families and friends of those who died as a result of this crime and for all those who were hurt or traumatised as well. And, yes of course, every effort should be put into tracking down the criminals involved in this horrible crime, so that they can be put on trial and put away where they can do harm. And, yes of course, we should take sensible precautions to try to prevent similar events occurring again. And that should be it.
But, and here we come to a more long standing “what if”, what if the fears created by this exceptional event create a political environment where still more erosions of our civil liberties take place in the name of security. As I wrote some time ago:
“…as we have seen over and over again there is a kind of symbiosis between the people who plant bombs and the people in authority whose instincts are essential anti-democratic. The number of voices arguing that the rights won by our ancestors at a cost to their liberties and lives must be sacrificed to guard against the possibility of exceptional events occurring is rising. Moves in that direction are dangerous and, as history has shown us, ineffective. And those seductive voices that promise security should make us afraid – our freedoms are more fragile and more easily eroded than we sometimes imagine.”
Politicians often talk of terrorists “threatening all we hold dear”. Terrorists can’t unless we let them. What does offer a threat is the anti-democratic responses their actions can prompt.
So let us hope that this time the politicians will follow the action, that most Londoners seem to have adopted, which is to accept that something horrible has happened, to hope that those responsible get caught, and then to go on going on.