Was there a bomb in your city today?
Think to yourself what would happen in your city if someone set off a bomb.
It’s one in the morning. People are asleep. People are coming home from a night out. People are watching late night TV. People are blogging. It’s one in the morning... It’s your city... BANG!
What would the aftermath be like? What would the press have to say? What would you have to think? Maybe no-one was hurt. Maybe lucky escapes were enjoyed. But this is your city. And someone just bombed it.
Think about your reaction. What would you feel? Fear? Panic? Anger? Hatred?
Last week this is exactly what happened in my city, Belfast. A small military base relatively close to my house was the target of what is called a ‘device’, close enough for me to hear the explosion. No-one was injured but the threat was real.
How did I react? I finished whatever I was doing on my computer and went to bed. Was it the talk of the town? Nope. Belfast is one of the places in the world where a bomb can go off and life can go on as normal.
Though I’m from Northern Ireland I am somewhat of a blow-in to Belfast itself, moving to the city just 8 years ago and living in other places since then, but everyone in Northern Ireland of at least my age and above grew up with both bomb scares that amounted to nothing and real carnage that changed lives forever. Some of the effects of this history on our society can be seen in our reaction to its present echoes.
I can only imagine the panic a bomb scare would instil in some places in the world. In Northern Ireland we became so used to them that to use the word blasé would be almost to understate. A friend tells the story of being instructed to look for an ‘incendiary device’, a fire bomb, in the shopping complex where she worked at the time, her clueless and unprotected hands riffling through cupboards and drawers with no idea what such a device would look like. When I was a kid all the families of protestant ministers in the area of Ireland where my family lived were threatened with bomb attacks. We smiled and joked around as we checked under the car for bombs before we travelled anywhere. I have come back to a Northern Ireland which is being actively threatened by a tiny minority of its population, a group which seems incapable of the peace the majority is enjoying. It’s a sad step backwards but you have to be paying attention to notice.
Unfortunately sometimes real tragedy lurks amongst the scare tactics. While I was away there were some shootings - two soldiers and a police officer were killed. Some rioting followed and concern was widespread. People feared a return to the kind of violence the past had put them through. The scale of the tragedy Northern Ireland has seen takes a toll on a society. I guess that, like drug addicts, we required bigger and bigger hits over time. So bomb blasts that injure none, controlled explosions, localised rioting, bomb scares...you’re going to have to do better than that my friend.
In the film, ‘A Mighty Heart’, the wife of a kidnapped journalist says that though it may appear that the terrorists had ‘won’ they had not, because they had failed to terrorise her. It is a powerful moment in a crushing film. When I think about Northern Ireland I do see this defiance. The refusal to be terrorised. The determination that life has to continue. The concern which followed the murders of this year led to defiant protests, with thousands of people standing in silence in front of City Hall. In silence they screamed, “We will not go back, we will not be terrorised.”
But I see something else too. I see a society that has been so scared, so terrorised in fact, that there is a numbness. Most of us are so tired that we cannot summon the energy required to beat our chests, our pulpits or our drums, the energy required by emotion. Genuine tragedy will force this from us. But what falls shorts of that will not. Instead we just continue. We plod along. We ignore what can be ignored. And we laugh at ourselves. We laugh about looking for bombs under our cars, we joke about our divisions and we smile knowingly at one another. I remember standing on the roof of my church with a group of Americans as a riot unfurled on a nearby street below. Petrol bombs were being thrown at the police and buses in the area had been hi-jacked and set alight. Some of our visitors were understandably shook up but those of us from Belfast smiled and joked. We knew the ‘rules’, this wasn’t our first riot, we knew we were in no danger. And there is a pride in knowing what we know. I saw the same dark humour and sensed the same kind of pride in Sierra Leone. We are not the same as other people. We have seen a thing or two.
The War on Terror has always been an interesting idea from the stance of an Irishman. That those who painted themselves as our great protectors hailed from the same land as those who had helped finance the war in our own for so many years was not lost on us.* Nor was the irony of a booklet issued by the British Government to every household in the UK, explaining what to do in the event of a terrorist attack. Thirty years too late where I come from but thanks for the thought. Clearly the Irish were just supposed to know already. But at what point would we say that terror had triumphed? That the war was on the way to being lost? When have we in actual fact been terrorised?
I want to suggest two different answers. When that terror is palpable. When we spend our time afraid, looking over our shoulders, and when that fear affects the decisions that we make. The threat level is orange so we shouldn’t travel today. This was the case in Northern Ireland during the troubles when people were searched going in to shops, when the city centre would close down by six and when people would simply not travel through certain places. But there is a second suggestion. An indicator which lingers in Northern Ireland even though the fear has all but gone. When life under threat wears us down so that we stop paying attention when we can manage to, when we stop being outraged and when we laugh to stop ourselves. The reaction strikes as perfectly natural self preservation but it is one forced by terror.
This is one of the tragedies of Northern Ireland. We have seen too many video nasties to be moved by what others would see as horror.
It’s one in the morning. My city is under attack. And I would like my innocence back.
*The role of America in the ‘Troubles’ is not an uncomplicated one. Visas were given to Irish Republicans to go on fund raising drives amongst wealthy Irish Americans, visas that lent credibility and money that did buy guns and explosives. At the same time the American administrations of people like Bill Clinton played an incredibly valuable role in bringing our various political factions close enough together (adjoining rooms if not the same room) for the ballot box to finally win the battle for hearts and minds it had been waging with the blast bomb.