Thursday, July 07, 2005

The News Hole

An odd thing happened tonight. It’s interesting how when one is traveling and trying desperately to cram into his or her head the history, language and culture of a new place, how isolated one becomes from the rest of the world.

At home, I am a confessed news junkie. I spend at least an hour every morning reading the New York Times on the Web and and keep up with various news bulletin services throughout the day. Bethany is probably not typically as hungry for news as I am, but she reads every morning and keeps up with current events,

This evening, we were both on our way to the Piazza del Popolo to find dinner, when the events of the world suddenly intruded upon us. As we entered the metro (subway), I tried to run our day passes through the validator, and it simply would not accept them. We tried machine after machine with no luck.

Suddenly, a huge surge of people emerged from the lower levels, looking irate and weary. Then another flow of people began to pour through the unmanned entry station to descend. Confused, we shouldered our way into the second mass and once through the gate, walked right past the security officers, who though unusually on edge, seemed to care little that we had not validated our passes.

Then the intercom crackled to life, and a voice said in several languages, “The metro station is now open for passengers. Thank you for your patience.”

I wondered aloud if perhaps there had been a mechanical malfunction or even a power outage.

It wasn’t until the following morning that we learned about the bombing of the British transit system.

This reminded me of the real tragedy of terrorism: the experience of the innocents. By definition, terrorism is an unexpected attack. What if the bomb had gone off in the Roman subway instead of the British subways? As we stood pressed against the thousands of people crowded shoulder to shoulder in the dank, hot darkness of the suddenly unventilated metro stations across the city, would we have any knowledge of what was happening? How can anyone recognize any such event as an attack until afterwards?

But I know that’s not the point of terrorist attacks. Rather, the point would be whether we, after hours of fumbling blindly across treacherous subway platforms, feeling our way up non-working escalators, fighting down the natural urge to panic as hundreds of people try to pull and pry their way to safety from the dank darkness … after all of this, would we have the courage to venture back into these subterranean stations again?

That’s what terrorism does. It turns the trusted into the enemy, the reliable into the frightening. And I think the terrorists in question would be more than happy if none of us felt comfortable riding the subway again.

But I suspect that most of the world had the same reaction to the British transit bombings as I did: I shrugged my shoulders, said a quick prayer for the victims and the emergency rescuers and went on with my life.


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