Monday, 25 July 2011

Road trip reflections

I'm writing this in a hotel in Hisar, about 140 miles west of Delhi in the state of Haryana. I'm en route to Sirsa, a town about 60 miles east of the Pakistan border, where we are involved in a project. This is my first time out of Delhi since I moved here, and only the second time I've been outside of a major city in India (the last time was in Kerala in January).

There's not an awful lot in Haryana to interest travellers. It's unrelentingly flat and agricultural, and our route here was a repetitive series of fields punctuated by identikit dusty villages. My attempt to get on with some work was thwarted by the variable quality of the roads (a couple of shuddering potholes and my stomach resolutely refused to let me look at any kind of screen or printed matter), and looking out of the window quickly lost its appeal (brightly coloured saris, playing kids and stoic cattle are all picturesque in their own way, but after a couple of hours tend to become a bit less exciting).

So maybe that's why I've been a bit reflective today. I have been thinking anyway - as I imagine has everyone - about the horrendous attacks in Norway last week, and I had ample opportunity for further ruminating on the journey here. So apologies that this post is going to be a bit glooomy, but this is what's on my mind.

I can't help but compare my reaction to the events in Oslo with my reaction to 9/11, almost exactly 10 years ago. For me, the circumstances are quite similar: in both cases I had recently arrived in a foreign country (in 2001 it was Korea, where I arrived in August), was feeling to some degree bewildered and isolated, and was staying in a large, mostly empty and somewhat cavernous apartment.

I remember very clearly watching the news coverage from the USA and feeling like the bottom had dropped out of the world. I didn't know anyone in the 9/11 attacks and I don't know anyone hurt or killed in Norway, but despite the distance of events in 2001 they provoked an extraordinarily profound sense of fear and confusion as I watched the towers fall in my lonely flat. I don't think any event before or since has shocked me to the core so utterly - even including the July 2005 bombs in London, which of course struck much closer to home.

My reaction this time has been different. Shock, yes, dismay, sympathy for those killed and their families, and concern that such awful events could happen in such an unlikely place - but my sense of horror and terror has not approached what I felt in 2001.

There are plenty of reasons. New York and Washington are, of course, iconic and familiar in a way that Oslo is not, so even though in 2001 I had only visited New York once (just as now I have only been to Oslo once) I felt that I knew it well. The sheer dramatic impact of watching those two behemoths of capitalism at the World Trade Centre topple could not but magnify the impact on people watchin events unfold. And while we didn't expect Norway to be attacked because it is largely peaceful, we didn't expect 9/11 because, at the time, the USA seems invulnerable. Both events shook what we thought we knew about the world, but the implications of 9/11 seemed mind-boggling (more so, perhaps, at the time than in hindsight, but still true today).

On a personal level, 9/11 came at a time when I was personally quite vulnerable and unhappy. I don't in any way wish to compare my experience with that of people who were directly affected by the events that day, but the loneliness and isolation I was feeling at that time seemed to double in intensity - not only was I out on my own in a strange place, but suddenly the whole world seemed a lot more strange and hostile than it had before. Of course this was mostly just a raw emotional reaction brought on by being at a difficult time in my life, but my memory of those feelings tells me they were very real. Today I am in a very different frame of mind and am much more able to deal with what the world has to throw at me.

Oddly enough, I don't think that my different reactions are down to the difference in the number of people killed in the two sets of attacks. We all know that numbers cease to mean very much beyond a certain point. It's hard to comprehend the tragedy of a thousand people being killed, and much easier to engage emotionally with one death. We just don't have the emotional resources to apply grief and horror proportionally to events of greater scale.

But my fear is that all of this rationalisation is nonsense, and that actually I've just become accustomed to random events of great violence springing up in unexpected places. I grew up in a country that was regularly the victim of terrorist attacks. All my life I have known to ask about unattended bags and, to this day, I often pop litter into my bag to dispose of at home out of habit rather than look for a rubbish bin (which were frequently absent in the UK in the 1980s as they were favoured places to plant a bomb).

But in my adult life the frequency, scale and spread of terrorist attacks has grown, and technological change has changed the nature of security threats in some terrifying directions. Attacks from Iraq to Manila, Mumbai to Oklahoma City, seem to be a standard feature of news reports today in a way I don't remember them being before (am I right here, or am I romanticising a past that has always been just as violent?)

I don't want to live my life in fear. But at the same time I don't want to lose my capacity to respond emotionally to the deaths of innocent people. If this starts to seem normal, that's when we really should be scared.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The news has been terribly depressing over recent days. The Oslo bomb and shooting is simply astounding. No words can really express how many people are feeling.