Catching courage

Thursday, July 21st, 2005

“Bombing, hate, murder and evil happen all over the world. Here in Britain we are not immune from it. This is unutterably sad, but like everywhere else, we will pick ourselves up and go on. I don’t want to meet hate with hate.

“Hate feeds hate. I’ve had enough of it. I’m scared, but not that scared.”

And so the blogger known only as Rachel, a survivor of the deadly bombings two weeks ago on London’s public transportation system, cuts to the heart of the human condition in her public diary that helped a city rally and heal. To read the unfolding story of a week out of her life, posted by the BBC, is not only to get eyewitness testimony of the chaos and darkness, the screams and smoke and shattered glass that engulfed the crowded train she was on after it left King’s Cross station that morning, but also, more importantly, to learn how a torn community holds itself together and recovers.

In this world of sudden death, we can always make matters worse. We can panic. We can turn cold and vengeful. The latter emotion is the metamorphosis of the former. Rachel’s blog is the story of a week in which common sense holds sway under duress, life is affirmed and the options for self-destruction are resisted. At the end of her week, anger and terror have turned to hope, not hatred. This is a story to fill everyone’s emptiness.

“We were choking and trying not to panic because we knew that would mean curtains,” Rachel wrote in her first post, on July 7, describing the exodus from the train a short while after an “almighty bang” interrupted this same old, same old commute to work and ground London to a halt. “We tried to keep each other calm.”

This is a phenomenon I seldom hear about: a group consciousness that instills restraint and precision; the opposite of a mob stampede. Peace activist Kathy Kelly has described acts of principled resistance in which people “catch courage from one another,” and I think something like this was happening as the dazed survivors trekked through the Tube tunnel, dimly lit with emergency lighting.

“I remember saying: ‘If anyone’s boss gives them grief for being late, we know what to say to them, eh, girls?’ People laughed and we kept saying, ‘not long, it’s the long walk to freedom, nearly there.’ I knew if we panicked we’d trip on the – possibly live – tracks and it would be hopeless.”

Something of lasting value, it seems to me, emerges from Rachel’s account: a testimony of communal courage, of how we can live together free of petty mistrust and fear. Talking to close friends, a few days after the bombings, about her planned return to work, she writes:

“I said I was determined to look into the faces of my fellow travellers tomorrow. Something Tube travellers never do. As we left the station, I would be thinking, like everyone else in the carriage, of a bang, a cloud of smoke. Of whether the face opposite me would be the face that looked into my eyes and held my hand if the unimaginable happened. Of whether the stranger on the train would be the guide in the panic and the voice in the dark.

“If these bombs make us realise that we are all fellow travellers, that we all need each other and can rely on each other, then something very good will come out of all of this.”

Rachel’s words reminded me of a remarkable speech made by a United Airlines pilot to his passengers a few days after 9/11, which provided a glimpse of how we could have gone as a nation after that day of horrors if we’d had leaders with vision rather than merely a cynical agenda.

As the plane prepared for takeoff, the pilot, as reported in The New Yorker, brought up a delicate subject: “The doors are closed now and we have no help from the outside,” he said. If this plane is hijacked, “I want you all to stand up together,” he said. “There are usually only a few of them and we are two-hundred-plus strong. We will not allow them to take over this plane.”

The stunning part of the speech, to my mind, was the end of it, when he asked the passengers to turn to their neighbors, introduce themselves and say a little something about themselves and their families – breach the anonymity, in other words, and open up little two-way passages of trust with one another. Voila, a hijack-proof plane!

This is the security of a people united around compassion and mutual respect, not fear. And like the pilot, Rachel has the voice of an awakened citizen, awed by awareness that we’re all deeply connected and interdependent. Such knowledge, though it rarely finds its way into political discourse, is the stuff of the future, if mankind is to have a future.