Dispatch from the Heart of Terror #1: London

Dispatch from the Heart of Terror is an occasional series from those on location where terrorizing events  – of whatever nature – have occurred.

Checked-in Safe

“How close is Charlotte’s house to the Houses of Parliament?” my father wrote from Tennessee, hours after the Westminster attack yesterday. I remember he’d been a graduate student in Dallas in 1963 and still had newspapers he’d saved from that day in November.

“5 miles,” I told him. Certainly the closest I had ever been to a terror attack. “But Charlotte has business meetings all over London every day of the week. We’re so lucky that she was home with me today, preparing for a dinner party.” (She had survived a bombing in Lagos, Nigeria several years ago, tossed by a security guard into an air cargo container, locked inside for several hours until there was an ‘all clear.’)

We were on her couch in Kensal Green, my girlfriend Charlotte and I, binge-watching saved episodes of the “Billions” when the attacker drove his Hyundai onto Westminster Bridge, mowing down tourists on his way to the gates of Parliament. When we’d finished the latest episode almost an hour after the attack, we were still oblivious.

Charlotte went back to the kitchen to start preparing a pitcher of cocktails for our guests. Just then, my phone buzzed with a text from an old friend in New Orleans, a Trump supporter from the earliest days of his campaign. “Just checking on you two. Hope you and the lady and her family are safe.” He often messaged after reports of terror attacks in Europe and I always found it a little passive aggressive. “We’re fine!” I was always tempted to write back.

I turned on the television, flipping back and forth between the BBC and CNN in that now-familiar confusion I associate with the post-9/11 world. I called Charlotte’s name and walked into the kitchen. She was Face-timing a friend in New York. “Babe,” I said, “there’s been a terror attack in London.” She followed me to the couch. Silently, we checked in with family, by text and email, hers in London and mine in the US.

News agencies quickly cycled through what news was available, and once we recognized it as a loop we went back to our party. Would we still host one? Charlotte emailed the guests– “Just let me know if today’s crisis will affect your travel,” she wrote. All expressed alarm but confirmed plans to attend, no significant interruptions. We were expecting 4 friends: 2 Swedes, a German, and another American. Unlike me, a mere “Registered Traveler” who visits on my university’s holidays, these friends were longtime Londoners, working in film, fashion, travel and the arts, an admittedly homogenous and privileged and insulated group, “a cocoon of joy” one guest wrote in a thank-you email this morning.

Facebook prompted me to check myself in as safe and I did. I’d already had a cousin post on my wall, inquiring about my whereabouts and safety. Friends “liked” my post immediately. I knew London and Westminster were mostly imaginary places to many of them, which increases anxiety. I was grateful for the concern. Just a few days earlier, I’d shared a Facebook meme which suggested that I’d a greater chance of death from lack of access to health care than a terrorist attack. One conservative friend in New York who’d argued with me about the ACA commented on my safe ‘check-in’: “still more worried about health care?”

Just after 7, guests began to arrive with news from the city. Remarkable how quickly city life had returned to normal, they all said. “This was a day we planned for but hoped would never happen,” a police official said. “Part and parcel of living in a big city,” Mayor of London Sadiq Kahn said. Analysts point out that there have been 13 London attacks foiled since 2013, and that the city’s preparedness is such that only the crudest attacks, hired compact cars and large knives, get close to the heart of power. Not “je suis London,” one guest said when I told them I was going to write this, “Please.” Instead, perhaps, ‘keep calm and carry on.’ “I hope you’ll remark on the resilience of this city,” another said.

Once we’d finished dinner and Charlotte and I had cleared the table, I told her I was going for a bus ride, to collect my thoughts and take the city’s temperature. I walked out toward Harrow Road to catch the Number 18. Everything seemed as usual: the Bulgarians were gathered again outside the hostel across the road from the bus stop, huddled against the rain which streaked the giant windshield of the bus. I was alone on the upper deck as it made its way toward Euston Station. I heard police sirens, more than usual I couldn’t say, although the acting commissioner had said we could expect a stronger presence. My fellow riders were not visibly bothered. I would not have recognized it as the heart of terror.

Back on Facebook, the Westminster panic had died down and my American friends were back to posting articles about the Republicans’ latest health care bill and the vote slated for this morning. I got off at Euston, crossed the road and hopped the 18 headed in the other direction. Was I more worried about that vote, the question of access to healthcare, than about a terrorist attack?

Yes, I resolved that I was. It’s easy for my American friends to imagine terrorism’s sensational violence, to feel empathy for victims and their families. That gets our blood up. It’s harder to generate concern for the victims — whether at home or abroad, citizen or immigrant or refugee — of what RFK called “the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay.” But to lose sight of the latter concern would be to make the sort of fundamental changes to our way of life which the Mayor and Prime Minister vowed right away we will not make.

So I’m checking in “safe” London. Saddened. Grateful. No “je suis,” please. Calm and carrying on.


Bob Cowser, Jr.’s most recent book GREEN FIELDS: CRIME, PUNISHMENT AND A BOYHOOD BETWEEN won “Best Memoir 2010” from the Adirondack Center for Writers, and an excerpt was cited in the Best American Essays 2012. He is Professor of English at St. Lawrence University, where he teaches courses in nonfiction writing and American literature and was named the 2012 Owen D. Young Outstanding Faculty Member. He has taught abroad in France, England, and Denmark.

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