Random Play by Graham Reid

London Calling

Yesterday, just hours before the bombs went off, I was booking our flights to London. Is that ironic? Well, only if you are Alanis Morissette. It was just coincidence actually, although not a very happy one.

Nothing that has happened -- horrific though it is -- could persuade me to change my plans. I have two sons living in that marvellous city, and our trip is in part to see them, some of it is a working holiday, and mostly it is just the start and end point for a trot through Europe for a few weeks.

That is going to be a lot of fun, and I can’t wait. And these events have not changed my thinking.

You can’t plan around a worst-case scenario, or anticipate the unexpected.

Terrorism by its very definition, catches you by surprise.

On the first anniversary of September 11 I flew from Chicago to New York. I was one of four people on the plane. I was astonished that Americans wouldn’t fly on that day -- Chicago’s O’Hare, one of the busiest airports in the world, was deserted -- but many seemed to think that Al-Qaeda, or whoever, would work to a timetable they could understand.

Terrorists don’t act in that way.

Which is why you cannot live your life to their murderous agenda. We are obliged to live to our own. If our paths cross -- and statistically it is highly unlikely -- then so be it. It won’t be Fate, probably just bad bloody luck.

Like most people, I have had some near-miss brushes with death: one day I stopped in a small Scottish town and bought some fish’n’chips for the kids before we drove on to Edinburgh. Some hours later a PanAm plane was blasted out of the sky and landed on that same town, Lockerbie.

On that same trip a guy was stabbed by a madman in a London station who just lashed out at random. I had been there minutes before. The last time I was in New York much the same happened, some whacko shot a woman in the subway just one stop beyond where I was getting on.

But I read nothing into these, and other similar, events. I don’t think my life was spared for any greater purpose, or that the victims in those situations were anything other than very unfortunate to have been in that place at that time.

That is why it was very hard for me to entertain the American idea that the people in the Twin Towers or the Pentagon were “heroes”.

They weren’t. They were just victims.

The same with these recent attacks. Wouldn’t you be surprised if the English media started conferring “hero” status on the dead and wounded? I think they'll rightly reserve that for those who acted selflessly in an attempt to save others.

The tragedy of these events however is compounded by where they happened.

As at Madrid’s busy Atocha station -- where I was just a few weeks before those bombs went off -- these people were going about the most mundane activity we can imagine, they were just going to work. They were doing something we can all understand, the dreariness of being in a railway carriage on just another morning. And then death arrives. At random.

That is why we cannot plan for these moments, try to negotiate our way around them in advance, or even expect that preparations will be of much use at all.

Terrorists study security precautions and it is the nature of their dark art that they weave their killing past them.

There is little we can do other than observe the commonly agreed upon protocols: watch for unattended bags, report suspicious activity and so forth.

That does not mean we are helpless in the face of terrorism. Quite the opposite.

We actually hold the power. By not changing our plans, by going about our daily lives with good will, humour and concern for our fellow citizens we defeat their shadowy purposes.

So no, I won’t be changing my travel plans. I am looking forward to seeing London again, to catching up with my two sons.

I spoke to one of them a few minutes ago. He had been on his way to work when it started to happen. He was 15 minutes away from Kings Cross, his usual station and which was one of those targeted, when he was made aware the Tube wasn’t running.. He thought he’d take the bus, but then they all stopped.

He phoned his brother who was on a Tube elsewhere and had no idea what was going on. They are both fine.

He tells me it was a weird day: people would ring and ask if he was okay and when he said yes they’d say ’Sweet as’ and then they went to ring someone else.

There was no panic, he said, just people concerned about their friends. No one said to him how dreadful it all was (in other than the most general of ways) and no one suggested it was time to get out of London.

He did say he had seen some of the backlash starting already. He felt sorry for the Muslim families waiting at the bus stops who were shunned by the drivers, shutting doors in their faces.

I was reminded of a Muslim family I saw at O’Hare the morning I travelled. They were -- father, mother, two small children -- surrounded by security people, airline officials and two huge guys with semi-automatic rifles.

Those people -- more than the rest of us who just have to go about our daily business because we have no choice, or because we choose to in the face of terrorism -- are the ones who have, and will continue, to suffer the most for the sins of others. Others who might pretend to act in their name, or worse, in the name of their God.

That, I think, is ironic.