From another Bridge: On the Westminster attack in London

Carolina Earle reflects on the recent London terror attack, its impact on our society, and how we must respond when faced by traumatic events

Source: Flickr

You can smell the dirt and the blackness as you descend into the depths of London’s underground. Banjo drums and saxophone notes shake in the air as you move with the crowds that bring life and sound to these endless tunnels. There are some who cannot face the heat, the lurching, and the narrow spaces but for me, like many others, this is nothing but routine. There have been moments when the train stops in the dark, or as a you sit alone late at night with just one other lone figure at the end of your carriage, that an unheeded burst of adrenaline forces up your guard. And yet, those small bursts of angst would usually fade within moments. It was only on Wednesday—as the details surrounding the Westminster terror attack were rapidly released—that, for the first time, I had to rationalise the thoughts which were urging me against taking the escalator ever-deeper to catch my train.

Looking at me, you would not have known it, but my heart was beating fast. I was too aware of the screeching of the tracks—I hated the sound and I wanted to be above ground before the train had even begun to move. At that point, all I’d known about the attack in Westminster was that a man wielding a knife had been shot dead. I’d seen the police stringing up barriers at Trafalgar Square, men hauling massive cameras running back towards the bridge, and the standstill traffic. It was all made clearer as the texts asking if we’d seen what had happened in Westminster, ‘where are you,’ and a missed call from home came through. The reality was that I was fine. I didn’t particularly want to stop moving as I crossed another bridge to Waterloo, but I was safe. Just like the people who occasionally looked out from the passing buses, I took futile glances across the river to where we knew people had been mauled, to people were lying dead… But you couldn’t see a thing. For all the chaos those mere few hundred metres away, the steady stream of people kept moving, with the usual intermittent group stopped here and there to take a picture of the view.

Despite a few more policeman in their yellow high-vis jackets at the station, nothing had really changed. The horror of the car and the attack was reserved for the next day’s news: it was Emma Watson who smiled from the front pages of the free papers. And then I was on my train, quickly moving away. Westbound to home, and to dinner. Despite my initial fear, I was in the vast majority who really had nothing to worry about. Alive, well, and undisturbed in our comings and goings throughout our city—we were, and are, the lucky ones. But it is evident even from our position of great fortune, that terror and its victims are the realities which we cannot ignore. These are realities which we must all face, even if this time it was not us. That fear of ‘who next,’ of ‘when next’, is like the fear of the dark which we all harbour suppressed somewhere deep within. It is easy for us to ignore until we find ourselves faced with flickering lights and the creeping sensation that we will soon find ourselves cowering, engulfed in blackness. For others, there is no warning, and the world goes dark in seconds. They are not afforded the luxury of having their fears invalidated and disproved.

And yet, this fear and this terror seems to be a periodic reality. I remember 7/7: being told–as we sat in my favourite bagel shop after the last day of school that there had been bombs on the tube. My mum was stuck in traffic and, though I know I didn’t understand, I remember wanting her there in that moment. I remember running down and hugging her incredibly tightly as she walked in. There was another moment a few years ago as I was sitting with a friend in Costa that, a few seats away, a deserted phone started ringing. Somewhat naively but purely instinctively, I had said I’d wanted to leave. The phone eventually stopped ringing, was picked up by its owner 20 minutes later. Nothing happened. There was no explosion, and yet this seemingly “irrational” fear is part of our modern conditioning.

Behind any fear is the reality: the victims of Wednesday’s attack were brutally and abhorrently murdered. An eyewitness described seeing a pair of Chelsea boots hit the windows on the top floor of a double decker bus, of then seeing the bare feet of a woman crushed, chest-upwards, beneath the bus wheel. He described seeing a man in shock sitting slumped and unable to speak for minutes, before it was discovered that his girlfriend had been thrown over the side of the bridge and into the Thames in the attack.

Hearing these reports from the back seat of my car, I feel torn. At times, I have felt like a fraud—banging on through watering eyes and frustration at the maxims of peace and the sanctity of life which I add to a long virtual list of hashtags, Instagram captions and Facebook posts from the comfort of my room. Yes, I believe in the power of the virtual world. The messages we share form a very real, very powerful, and incredibly strong wall of solidarity which surpasses borders and strengthens nations. Yet, when the images of the London skyline fade back into memes, the devastation still remains. It only fades from our screens.

We do not forget these events. I believe there are few who are not pained by Wednesday’s events or go unshaken by scenes of similar horror throughout the world. And yet, for many, these events can seem removed from our own reality. They are forever present in our subconscious, but are relegated to a past time as we heed the calls for life to go on as ‘normal’. Our memories of these events will resurface as the lone phone rings and, though life must go on and we must not allow the terror to define us, we must not acclimatise ourselves to these macabre attacks. We must fight against terror by all means possible. The solidarity and unity which came in the aftermath of the attack at Westminster on Wednesday is the sentiment that must persist and prevail. For all that is uncontrollable in the world, this is an ideal that we can all work to achieve and for which we are all responsible.

London is my home, and that darkness and heat on the tube is ‘mine,’ and we will not buckle. I mourn those who lost their lives here on Wednesday, and I mourn the victims in Syria, Paris, Turkey, Belgium, and throughout the world. It pains me–all the blackness in the world. Yet, despite this darkness, we cannot ignore all the light.