An irresistible invitation by email – to a ‘counter-terrorism course, with tea and biscuits.’ Which brings volunteers at the cathedral – a ‘public place of special interest’ – to a draughty hall, all attention, while a Security Officer tells us that the current threat level is ‘severe’. That is, highly likely.
Then he takes us through the different types of terrorism, from ‘international Islamic operations’ to the ‘lone enactor with knives or a penetrative vehicle in a marauding attack’. We’re to look out for anything out of the ordinary, like ‘suspicious items.’
Trouble is, there are a lot of those. If the carrier bag in the corner is ticking or the rucksack over there has wires sticking out of it, you’ve got a clue – but most property looks odd if lost and shopping bags strange when full, all lumps and corners – and sometimes a deadly device can pass undetected…
November, 1974. Piccadilly Circus, late afternoon. My shopping finished, I left Swan and Edgar, one of London’s lost department stores, crossed the road, passed a pillar box and the winged statue of Eros, heading for the tube and home. The soft boom I heard behind me might have been a car and it was only later I learnt about the force of the blast that shattered the store windows and knocked passers-by off their feet. The bomb was timed. One of several the IRA planted in the capital and other cities on the mainland – small enough to ‘post’ through the standard slot of a pillar box – killing some and maiming many more.
‘Or suspicious people.’ The speaker has paused, as if scanning a mental script. ‘There has to be some objective basis….stereotypes are insufficient grounds for suspicion.’ Fair enough. The young man with a beard on the bus last week seemed rather sweaty, but it wasn’t his fault he looked like Bin Laden and a lot of people ‘avoid eye contact’ or look a bit dodgy at this time of year. The extra bulk around the middle is more likely to be comfort food than a suicide vest…
The Government Message is, ‘Be Alert, not Alarmed’, the modern version of Keep Calm and Carry on. In case of an Incident, what the official Staying-Safe Advice boils down to is: ESCAPE! If you can’t run, hide. This is more like it – more akin to acting on instinct – which in my case would be to panic, grab my handbag and dive into a place of greater safety, like M&S.
Most of us in the hall are pensioners, some of us war babies told we were thrown under the bed or the kitchen table or into the garden shed when the bombs fell – but if one of them had your number on it, there’d be no shelter strong enough…
We live in a quiet part of a country at peace, fields not far away – but a front line now can form anywhere, without warning. On a beach or a plane, in a market, at a concert. The advice that can’t be given – or even taken – still holds true: try not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
March, 2017. After a tour of Westminster Abbey, my son and I crossed Parliament Square and ambled up Whitehall for a late lunch nearby. In the restaurant, a sudden hush, people staring at their mobiles. Down the road, on the Bridge, a man had just mown down several pedestrians, then crashed his car into some railings and stabbed an unarmed policeman. We finished the meal in silence; neither of us mentioned the morning in July, 2005, when he sat in Russell Square, late for school, and heard an explosion – which was the sound of the No.30 bus being blown apart.
It’s getting hard to concentrate, but the Officer, who never sits down at any time, has much more to say. Being aware of your surroundings isn’t enough. ‘Know your exits….silence your phone, turn off vibrate….if you can see the attacker, he may be able to see you…’
A break for tea and chocolate digestives – and about time too, because by now, we’re thoroughly alarmed, but not alert…. Then a video about the emergency services and anti-terrorist teams. A few questions and answers. Yes, you can restrain an aggressor, but only ‘with reasonable force!’ which raises interesting if ambitious possibilities. Would a bash on his head with a bible or a handbag be acceptable?
An inevitable conclusion to any course: a feedback form. Fill it in, because it would be rude not to. Middle-class to the end. The hall empties more quickly than it filled. We’ve got the Message, but have a way of life to resume, threatened or not.
Take the shortest route home. If there’s any suspicious behaviour or activity about, I’m too tired to notice it….and anyway, eternal vigilance is impossible. Something the speaker said returns to keep me company – ‘If trapped, make no sudden movements. Help will arrive.’
It must – because another instinct, to hold out a helping hand, is the primal source of our security. It’s the hand that raises mighty forces against all the evil out there, formed of all the ordinary people trying to be good and of others doing their best both day and night to protect them. The brave heart against the horror and cowardice of the closed mind.
Turn on the news. Nothing terrible’s happened today. No near-miss stories; at least not here. But when the next attack takes place and finds its softest target – the precious, innocent human body – and yet another family’s shattered beyond repair, anyone who dares to stand in front of the cameras and say, yet again, that ‘we’re not afraid’ and ‘nothing will divide us’ is deaf to the scream of the silent majority – and needs their bumps felt.