Not long after moving to London in 1997, I went to the tube station one night to take the train to my boyfriend's place, only to find out it had been closed due to a "bomb alert". I got the bus and met him anyway, telling him the story of my close encounter with terrorism with wide-open eyes.
"Oh no," my boyfriend said and clapped his hands to his face, parodying the look on my face. "Not a bomb threat... we're all gonna dieee!"
As he fell about laughing I asked him, earnestly, why he thought that someone putting a bomb on the train was so funny.
"They have those threats every week," he said, composing himself. "Nothing ever happens. Well, maybe there is a bomb but so what? There's nothing they can actually do to stop some nutter getting on the train and blowing it up."
It made a cool, rational kind of sense that I couldn't argue with. There was no way to neutralize the threat of a bombing, even though the panic alarm of fear ringing in my head made me want to race around trying to find a way to deal with it.
That's the same alarm that people are hearing now, in the wake of the latest terror attacks on Paris and Brussels, etc. But it's an irrational alarm.
Ever since 9/11 the media has been acting as if there's something that can be done about terrorism, but they're wrong and they know it. Terrorism is not new, and it's not the preserve of any one group. It endures because it's so extreme. It's also rare because it's so extreme.
In 1999, I was still living in London when, one day, a customer in my pub told me that his boyfriend had been blinded in the nail-bombing attack on a gay bar in Soho. Another friend of his was walking with a crutch after losing his leg in the same attack. In 2005, I got up late for work one day, only to discover that the train I was meant to board for work had been blown up by a group of radical, Islamic Britons with bombs in their backpacks.
By then, I had realized that what that first boyfriend had told me was true: no amount of planning in the world can prevent a terrorist attack. That's why it's a very successful strategy for scaring the hell out of people. A terrorist is malevolent, determined, and can go unnoticed when he's living in a massive, faceless urban centre. That helpless realization makes our fear explode with more force than a dozen suicide bombs.
Because, how do you protect everyone in a dense urban sprawl, when a network of disguised madmen are running amok, armed and dangerous? The answer is you don't. You can't. The threat is always there whether you are aware of it or not. Dense urban sprawls contain plenty of murderers and rapists, serial killers and child molesters, power mad cops, corrupt politicians, gay bashers, neo-Nazis and gangsters.
The last time that there was a serial rapist on the loose in London, though, I don't recall the government issuing a code red alert. I don't recall them telling every man in the city that he should stay indoors and not approach women or else he would be considered as a suspect, beaten and possibly shot.
Why, then, is this deemed an acceptable response when there is a terror threat on the go? Why suspend all civil liberties or treat peace activists like they're a threat, without provocation or explanation?
Because we tolerate it, and we don't stop and think about how little sense it makes.
Terrorism plays on our worst fears about what can go wrong someone throws a spanner in the works in a sprawling urban centre. But then, so do escalator fires, train crashes and mall roof collapses. The thing is, escalator fires and train crashes are usually caused by political and corporate wrongdoing, whereas terrorism is a usually caused by an individual, ideological wrongdoing. When individuals and idealists are to blame, our leaders are only too happy to pull out all the stops and stamp the problem out. But for some strange reason, ordinary citizens are forbidden from taking the same hardline approach toward their leaders when they fuck up. (See: Guantanomo Bay, Jean Charles de Menezes etc). The blame only ever flows in one direction, which speaks volumes about another kind of tyranny.
Besides, history shows us that peace only actually comes out of listening to terrorist factions and taking their demands seriously. Stomping them out does not work. George W. Bush infamously said that the American government wouldn't negotiate with terrorists, but the US utterly failed to kick the Taliban's ass and actually hastened the spread of radical Islamic factions in the Middle East. The UK government, on the other hand, finally tried to negotiate with the IRA after almost a century of bloody skirmishes and, lo and behold, peace was established within a few years. Lesson learned.
Except it wasn't. Every terror attack that has happened since 9/11 has resulted in ham-fisted overreactions that seem intended to inflame the situation. Could it be that that is exactly what they are designed to do?
'Fighting' terror doesn't work, yet many policy makers and media shakers embrace it. Why? The fact is, going into military overdrive has huge financial benefits for the well-connected rich. If you dont believe me, take a look at what happened to the share prices between March 22-March 30th for BAE Systems and Rheinmetall , two huge weapons manufacturers. They both jumped by about a dozen points. Why? Because the Brussels bombings happened on March 23, silly. BAE Systems shares some of the same directors as Barclays Bank, JP Morgan, Reuters, and the New York Federal Reserve do. They are typical of arms manufacturers, in that respect.
So the hardline approach to terrorism also boils down to money. 'Fighting' terror with weapons, surveillance and armed police is sexy for us because it's sexy for the people who print our news, who are able to buy that much more cocaine, prostitutes and flashy cars thanks to it.
After all these years of living next door to terrorism, I'm still not really sure what the bad guys look like. One year they're neo-Nazis, the next they're Muslim. Quite often, they're guys in suits. I can, however, imagine that acting paranoid, detached and avoiding authority figures are the standard characteristics of someone who is carrying a home made bomb. So scaring peple off of the streets with armed police and randomly searching them creates the perfect environment for terrorists to blend in to. It puts us all on the same level as them, thereby adding fuel to the flames.
My boyfriend was right. You can't ever be sure that the person standing next to you isn't a crazed maniac. You can't be sure that they're not carrying a bomb, or a gun, or a knife. But you can make sure that they never have a reason to use it. Standing up for freedom, peace and equality is the only surefire way to do that.
For more background, read this piece about 9/11 and the anti-WTO protests