We're revelling in it
In the face of terror, altruism, black humour and
sex are the therapies that will see us through
I will always remember the time when my Israeli acquaintance Yael
phoned me half an hour later than I had expected. “Another
hassle,” she apologised, “a car bomb went off and I
got caught up in the traffic.” At the time I did not quite
comprehend how a bomb explosion could be equated with a hassle.
Yet that was the initial reaction of many people to the violence
that shook the streets of London on July 7. People milling around
Liverpool Street Tube station just a few minutes after it was closed
down sensed that something was wrong. But the immediate response
of people was to treat the incident as yet another hassle in their
busy lives as they tried to get on with their affairs.
Of course, everyone who was caught up in the recent terrorist bombings
in London will remember the terrible events for the rest of their
lives. Yet what struck an American friend of mine, Scott, was the
calm, almost matter-of-fact, response to the violence. Scott has
experienced an act of terror before. He was in Washington in October
2002 when the city was virtually paralysed for three weeks during
the sniper attacks by a pair of serial killers. He believes that
Londoners reacted to terror differently — far more robustly
— than their American counterparts. Many other observers were
also taken aback by this resilient response. After all, we live
in a world of constant panic — the acronyms BSE, Aids, MMR,
and Sars haunt our imagination — yet when the London bombs
went off, people did not panic.
Someone who has lived in Israel or Sri Lanka would be less surprised
by the way Londoners reacted. In places where such violent episodes
are routine, people often develop surprisingly effective coping
skills and get on with life. And although individuals may feel anxious
about their health, the food they eat or the safety of their children,
when confronted with a catastrophe they can show amazing resilience.
Israel has a vibrant nightlife and many people make a point of
going out in the evening as a way of affirming life. Yael and her
partner David go clubbing. “We say good-bye to our fears when
we hit the dance floor,” says David. The same attitude was
displayed in London when a spontaneous “beat the bombers”
street party was thrown in Shepherds Bush, West London, after commuters
joined local people who had been evacuated from their houses after
the second wave of attacks.
Black humour also thrives and, yes, people even make jokes about
suicide bombers. Those who lived through the Blitz in 1940 can testify
to the therapeutic effect of coarse humour. And of course there
is nothing more life-affirming then having sex. The Blitz proved
to be a natural aphrodisiac. Conventional sexual norms became less
relevant to people who suddenly felt that since you live only once
you might as well get on with it. And public bomb shelters proved
to be ideal pick-up joints.
When confronted with terror many people gain strength from forging
sturdy family ties. Many Israelis and Sri Lankans look to their
families to keep them focused. Local cultural practices often help
communities to come to terms with their loss and to moderate their
fear. The terrorist siege of a school in Beslan, North Ossetia,
last year, which led to hundreds of casualties, shook up the community.
But they were able to deal remarkably well with their loss. A series
of large funerals involving the community provided an opportunity
for everyone’s grief to be publicly acknowledged. These traditional
rituals helped people to make sense of their circumstance and to
contain their fear. One Western guest at a funeral told me that
this was an experience she will never forget. “Witnessing
our common pain made everyone aware of our powerful humanity,”
The ability of a culture to endow the experience of fear with meaning
can even lead to unexpected positive outcomes such as the emergence
of new forms of local or national solidarity. The “Blitz spirit”
may have become an overused metaphor, but it is worth noting that
when communities succeed in retaining a sense of meaning in the
midst of destruction, a local equivalent of the Blitz spirit emerges.
Research into people’s response to the bombing of Hamburg
and Hiroshima reveals a surprising level of community resilience.
And after 9/11, New York experienced an epidemic of civility and
Studies on disasters consistently point to the sudden increase
in altruistic behaviour in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Researchers
have coined the term “therapeutic community” to describe
the emergence of altruistic behaviour by people after a disaster.
The term means what it implies — that communities have the
potential to develop their own therapy to minimise the destructive
impact of fear.
Solidarity and civic behaviour help to foster a sense of belonging
in the midst of chaos. We saw something of this earlier this month
in London. My wife’s friend, Asmeena, was on the last carriage
of the Tube train near Edgware Station when a bomb went off. She
recalls that except for one distressed young women everyone remained
calm. What amazed her was the helpful, practical way that the other
passengers behaved. Without anyone asking, people were immediately
sharing their water.
Others demonstrated their DIY skills and were making headway opening
the windows and doors. Asmeena will never forget the scream of a
man trapped near the blast but she will always remember the spontaneous
kindness and help that total strangers were able to extend to one
Sally was near Russell Square when she heard the explosion. She
was frightened and soon gave up trying to fight back the tears.
But what she recalls is how everyone remained calm and civil in
the situation. When I talked to her a couple of hours after the
event I was impressed that her instinct was not to flee the scene
but to think about what she could do to help others. She did not
know it, but she is part of an emerging therapeutic community.
Fears cannot be predicted in advance. It is through experiencing
and responding to a destructive episode that people begin to work
out their own narrative of fear. Londoners responded differently
to the first bombing than to the second attempt to wreak terror.
It was then that people understood that the July 7 explosions were
not a one-off affair. Many Londoners now realise that this threat
may become part of their lives and naturally feel more anxious.
But the realisation that terror may become a “normal”
part of life can help people to develop coping skills that minimise
the disorientating effects of fear. Developing a routine to deal
with terror takes time but people are already working out coping
strategies and rituals to deal with the new situation. This is a
time when people should be encouraged to experiment, to innovate
a lifestyle appropriate to the new circumstances that confront us.
We don’t all have to go clubbing but a bit of life-affirming
activity will definitely be good for our collective soul.
Since September 11 many of us have come face to face with the explicit
attempt to make us ill with fear. The impact of terrorism is predominantly
psychological. The terrorists know that the more we fear them the
more their power is enhanced. Their aim is to paralyse their target
with fear. Those who organised the bombings in London do not want
us to think of the impact of their deed as a “hassle”.
They certainly don’t want Londoners to embrace a vibrant night-life.
They want us disorientated with fear.
published in the Times, 30 July 2005