Powerless. That’s how I felt last night.
I thought I’d read the Guardian before I went to sleep. Little did I know that choice would keep me up in a state of horror until the early hours of this morning.
I clicked onto the Guardian’s homepage to see that Paris was in the throes of more than one terrorist attack. I switched the TV on to see what Al Jazeera was saying. Attacks outside a stadium, in a restaurant, at the Bataclan nightclub, on the street… people crying, screaming, running. Police and medics scrambling, and everywhere flashing lights.
As the scenes unfolded, I watched impotently. The sense of powerlessness such events evoke is one of their most awful traits. They make me into an unwilling spectator; they force me to watch as humanity is violated.
I remember staring as the 9/11 planes crashed one after the other into the twin towers. I remember watching as people tried to jump from the towers to escape the destruction, only to die as they met the ground. I remember being very aware of the TV screen – of the glass that separated me from reality. I remember what it felt like to know that I couldn’t reach those people to help; that I could do nothing except watch events unfold.
On 7/7, I remember as my commute to work on the London Underground terminated early. I rose from my seat and joined crowds of bewildered people who had been told to exit the tube station. Later, when I learned about the tube and bus attacks, I again felt a sense of powerlessness. I had been geographically close to one of the attacks that morning, yet was just a dot in an ocean of people trying to get to work on foot, the best they could. As I walked to work from Victoria tube station, the crowds were Biblical. I have never seen so many people on London’s streets, not knowing what was happening. The next day, while many others boycotted the tube, fearing follow-up attacks, I wore mourning black and pearls and rode the tube to work. It was my way of defying that sense of powerlessness. It was a small way of saying that life must continue after atrocity – of denying the attackers the last word.
Paris is home from home to me. It’s a magical city and somewhere I have visited time and again with a pounding heart of wonderment and gratitude. To walk in Paris is to journey in history, to step into poetry and to commune with eternity. To see it ripped apart in the most brutal way is dreadful, heartbreaking. I had decided against a trip there just last week, and while I’m glad I took that decision I’m not relieved.
Perhaps, if I had gone, I could have helped somehow. Perhaps I could have put an arm round a person, or given someone a blanket or a safe place to run to when the madness started. Perhaps I might have spoken words of comfort, or made someone a hot drink or done any of the tiny, tiny things that people do when they’re confronted with a storm so vast that only small gestures have any meaning.
Powerlessness is magnetic; it draws other impotencies to it – like the sneaking, creeping fear that what Paris experienced last night will revisit Europe or the UK and again I will be forced into the role of spectator. Britain’s threat level remains at the second highest level – severe, meaning an attack is considered highly likely. This morning, news agency Reuters has said that ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, saying they were a response to bombing in Syria. How long will it be before they strike again?
So this afternoon, I read the newswires and watch the TV reports as I must – firstly because I am compelled by my journalistic training and secondly because I am a part of that violated humanity.
Although I am separated by distance from the travesties I witnessed, I am joined to the victims by the empathy I feel for all the powerless everywhere, to protect ourselves and those we love in the face of terror.
Paris, France, je pleure.
© gvons 2015