Since I wrote earlier, it has become clear that the explosions in Brussels this morning were not accidental. My heart aches for those affected both by today’s events in Belgium and by any violence, any day, any place. It feels impossible to wrap one’s head and heart around such ghastly acts.
I’ve always found that putting pen to paper is the best way to try to make sense of dreadful things. There is of course no sense in violence, but there is sense, I think, in responding to events meant to incite hatred and anxiety with a level head and a degree of pragmatism. It would be so easy to let the waves of fear roll in every time you board a train, to sit on the tube with a pounding heart; to give in to fear and take the long route home. To cancel the holiday in Europe you’ve looked forward to for months; to react to strangers with hostility, to let suspicion breed. But life is like riding a bicycle, isn’t that what they say? If you wish to keep your balance, always keep moving, even when you fall.
By virtue of terrorism’s nature, nowhere and everywhere is safe. It will never be entirely eradicated, no law can stop it in its tracks. In fact, spreading fear through violence is a practice as old as civil society itself – from the Roman legions to the Assassins of Nizari to the practice of deliberately bombing civilians during the Second World War. Nowhere and everywhere is safe. I try to remember the latter, especially here in this sprawling city I have grown so fond of, where I was born. Random acts of violent crime are as arbitrary as car accidents, as falling down the stairs, as falling ill with the flu – not to mention far less likely.
This lunchtime I walked to the northern edge of Regent’s Park with a friend and colleague, the sky overhead blue like the sea. We spoke not of horror but of simple joys – of magnolia blooms and Moroccan souks, of planting seedlings in the soil and the warmth of the Marchtime sun on our pale winter cheeks. The clocks will click forward this weekend. What delights lie ahead. It would have been easy to talk of the terror unfolding a few hundred miles away, to stay put at our desks. But continuing as usual is a far more powerful action: to find joy in the lunchtime walk, to buy packets of wildflower seeds on the way back to the office, to feel deliciously excited about springtime as the city awakens from its winter torpor, to anticipate London on the cusp of British summertime.
When words like terror and violence bounce around our heads – the psychological equivalent of canaries in a coal mine – there is a power that resounds in small ordinary acts, in choosing not to be afraid. After November’s events in Paris, I am ashamed to admit that I felt anxious for several weeks; rocked by a sense of unease that lingered as I rode the underground to work or sat in the window seat at my favourite city centre café. To feel this kind of pervasive anxiety is instinctive and natural, surely, but I was aware even as I experienced it that it was unnecessary and unhelpful. But, at the very least, even as my heart pounded, I showed up. One evening at Baker Street, crammed into a carriage of the Hammersmith and City Line dawdling at the stop, a squadron of police – ten strong, at least – fanned onto the platform, shining lights through the open doors and into the crowds. But I stayed put. We all did. Months later, the tubes are still packed and the pubs are still heaving. Soon the pavements will fill with springtime revelers and sidewalk diners.
It is worth remembering that the purpose of terrorism is not to maim or to kill. It is to draw attention to a political creed; the violent acts a mere conduit for drawing attention to that wider cause. The explosive force of bombs does not derive from the dynamite used to detonate them. It derives from the psychological and political impact their ignition triggers – from the rash actions of governments acting in grief, confusion, to the fear of citizens who react by changing their routines to the xenophobia that jihadist acts can elicit in populations.
May we find solace in the fact that life spills over, continues on. We must not, I pray, forget that there are people the world over still taking walks, travelling to work, forging plans, eating dinner in restaurants, enjoying each other’s company. We must not, I pray, forget that lovers still kiss on lamplit doorsteps, that bright yellow dandelions still grow doggedly between pavement cracks. People still make art, pen stories with happy endings, sing out their hearts, raise loving children, and dedicate their lives to noble cause. Finding all that is good and light and true in this life is a comfort, a genuine one: in the slant of the sun, in the glow of the moon, in the laughter of children, in the kiss of a lover. The way daybreak floods the front room of our apartment, the light skidding in stripes through the blind, pooling in glossy orbs on the dining table, painting his hazel eyes an otherworldly amber. The city streets are as bustling as ever this afternoon and there’s a comfort in that. Life goes on, which really is all that terrorists never wanted.
This is the thought I will keep in my mind, like a balm that soothes: as Confucius said, our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall. I will not let fear seep through my veins, spreading like a cancer that cannot be contained. Instead I will smile and keep a defiantly open mind. I will love, be kind. Isn’t that all we can ever ask of ourselves? Sending so much love to Brussels and its tenacious people on this night.
Some related links so very worth reading:
This essay – ‘Fear Itself’ – by Gene Weingarten, written in 2004 but still just as powerful and relevant.
This Guardian comment piece written today by Simon Jenkins, about the need for restraint in the face of terror:
This heartwarming video of a father explaining the Paris attacks to his son last year.