Somehow we always think that "these things don't happen" There is a universal conviction that the atrocities we hear about are all past, and that none of us will ever have to deal with the horrors that faced our parents and grandparents in Vietnam and the World Wars. But time and time again we are proved wrong, because there are just as many violent-minded people in the world, and increased technology gives them even more opportunities for wreaking havoc.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have shocked the Western World, and I keep hearing phrases like "unprecedented" and "never before". The stark truth however, is that terrorist attacks as cold-blooded as these have been going on all my life in the Middle East, yesterday's attacks are mostly notable for the extreme melodrama of the gesture, the fact that the "untouchable bastion of freedom and democracy" has finally succumbed to the violence that affects our cousins in Israel on a daily basis.
When I was 7 years old a Lybian bomb destroyed a Boeing 747 above the small town of Lockerbie, the debris landed on a residential area and made a huge crater where minutes before had been quiet suburban residences. I was too young to really understand the incident, but I spent almost a year wanting to hide under the kitchen table whenever I heard a plane go overhead. Eight years later, when I was old enough to understand death and violence, a man burst into a classroom of 4 year olds and killed 17 of them with a handgun, a copycat incident involved kindergarten children and a machete attack. Not long after that, someone walked into an examination room and set a flame-thrower on the 14-16 year olds sitting their exams there.
This all happened in the UK, I grew up in Edinburgh, not a war zone, but everyone who has watched the BBC news in the last 20 years will be able to reel you off a list of terrorist attacks and random acts of violence carried out by lone crazies.
I spent my childhood watching news reports on IRA bombs going off in shopping centres and train stations. Of "Freedom Fighters" kneecapping civilians because they wanted to have a friend of the "wrong" religion, or even because they wanted to sell their business to the "wrong" person. Later on, after the situation in Ireland had calmed down somewhat, it was the Gulf War, the Gaza Strip, atrocities in Bosnia, Afghanistan and more places than I can even remember. But still people say "that kind of thing doesn't happen nowadays, we're much to civilized now" Ethnic cleansing is going on right now, as I type. Women are being beaten and stoned to death by the Taliban for not keeping themselves completely covered up in public, or simply because their husband wants another dowry and decides to accuse his wife of adultery so he can get a different one. The world is full of violence, and yet all of us are irate and disbelieving when this violence intrudes into our small lives.
Every person on this planet has the right to live a peaceful, sane life. Yet there is violence in the world, and we deal with it by pretending it's not happening, or by saying "well, that's just what those Arabs are like isn't it? Nothing we can do to stop them, they're all bloodthirsty maniacs" Tough luck for the child that happens to be born in Palestine. Tough luck for the family who loses a relative to terrorist violence. But let it happen on our doorstep and suddenly it's unacceptable, "why don't they do something to stop these things?" Why indeed? Because until it does happen on your doorstep, until it's you who are frantically trying to make sure that no-one you know was hurt, these things don't happen. Those screaming mothers you see on the news after their child was hit by shrapnel, they're not real people, they're just Palestinians, Irish, Serbs, Croats, Russians, Israelis, FOREIGNERS. It doesn't affect me, it's someone else's problem, let them sort it out. I am as guilty as the next person of these thoughts. My anger at the perpetrators of the attack on US is combined with anger at myself for not taking any action to call for more peace talks, more understanding in the world.
The US decides to bomb Iraq, good, teach Saddam a lesson. Meanwhile my English classmates are numb with terror because their brother, sister, parents, cousins...whole extended families live in Baghdad. Only now am I getting a slight insight into what that time must have been like for them. My cousin works in lower Manhattan, it was the work of a panicked minute to e-mail her and ask if she was ok, and another minute before I got a reply saying she's safe. Two minutes of fear for a relative's life, and I'm still shaken by it. Imagine not knowing for months.
The horror of yesterday's attacks lies not in the fact that it was Americans who were harmed, nor in the fact that it was an icon of democratic free trade that crumbled to smoldering rubble. The horror is in the realization that there are people in this world who will plan and scheme and risk their own lives to kill tens of thousands of civilians who's only crime is being human living in a certain country. "How dare they attack us?" people are asking, the real question is: How have we managed to escape this violence for so long? How have we seen what innocent humans are subjected to daily and not risen up against the injustice of it? The world is at war, and we aren't even paying attention.