Keep calm and carry on. Those were the motivational words printed on a poster produced by the British government in 1939 in preparation for predicted mass air attacks on major UK cities during World War Two. Last week ISIS horrifically attacked Paris, killing 129 people and leaving hundreds more injured. One can't help but prepare for the terrifying possibility of more attacks across other major European cities. We are constantly reminded that if we change our way of life as a result, the terrorists win. 'Keep calm and carry on' is a nice slogan, but it still doesn't stop fear from entering the hearts and minds of regular people.
I just moved to the UK from Australia, and last week I was hired for a new role as a marketing intern for a young start-up company based in central London. My first week began on Monday morning as I sat atop a double decker bus, bound for Oxford Circus. The horrible events of Friday night in Paris had had more of a profound effect on me than I realised at the time. Places that had previously been tourist sites in London, were now transformed into terrorist targets.
The big red bus crossed over Westminster Bridge and I gazed out of the window to Big Ben standing, tall and proud as always. A vision then jolted into my mind of terrorists flying the ISIS flag and pulling up in a speedboat alongside Parliament House. I imagined an explosive device detonating and tearing through the side of the building, bringing the gigantic clock tower crumbling down into the Thames.
I shook the grim thought from my mind and looked to the other side, where I could see the London Eye steadily rotating in the crisp autumn morning. The cabins were filled with tourists happily snapping photos of the skyline to show their families back home. A new vision took over, this time of an explosion ripping the wheel from its bearings causing it to crash down onto the innocent people below. I took out a book to distract myself and read until it was time to clamber down the stairs and make my way out to Piccadilly Circus. What had last week been an iconic London street corner, had now become a prime site for a terrorist operation. Everything appeared to have slowed down as I saw families, business men, tourists and the like, all going about their lives as usual, just as the people of Paris had. Is it a matter of time?
I arrived at a cafe two minutes from Piccadilly Circus and met my new boss. I then began the mundane task of building client lists. As I worked away on my computer, a car backfired out in the street. I knew it was nothing, but last week I wouldn't have flinched. Now I was thrust back into thoughts of terrorism as I peered out of the window for a minute, pondering. If something did happen, would we hear it? People in the cafe would probably start receiving calls or notifications and word would spread pretty rapidly. But where would we go? In peak hour it already takes 20 minutes to get into the underground, let alone if the whole city began panicking. I figured that the safest thing would be to go to the basement and stay there until word came that it was safe to be outside. What if a gunman came into the cafe to hold us hostage? I imagined myself as the hero. I would throw a coffee cup through the window causing a loud distraction and then tackle the assailant to the ground. I would receive a knighthood for the act of bravery and get to meet the Queen. In reality, I would probably hit the floor and play dead. I've never even been in a street fight, let alone taken on the likes of a global terrorist.
On Tuesday I sat in the cafe again, building the never-ending client list. I became distracted from my work as I noticed a man by the window in a large coat with his hood on. Large coats in London are not unusual, but the blank expression on his face and the mechanical drone in his hands certainly were. I tried to shake loose the media's imposed prejudices towards his brown skin, but the scene fit a stereotype. He walked around the cafe clutching the drone, not saying a word. He then sat back down by the window again, still hooded, staring blankly forward. Eventually, he got up and walked out. I looked around and discovered that I wasn't the only one to notice. The cafe occupants seemed to have shared a collective feeling of tension. My boss made a joke about the hooded man preparing to film an attack from the sky with his drone. Those were the obvious thoughts that caused the tense feeling in the air of the cafe. I forced a chuckle, but feared that my boss wasn't far from the truth.
Friday night arrived and I walked to a bar in Piccadilly Circus after my first week of work. Two fire trucks passed the intersection with sirens blaring, and my first instinct was to think that they were responding to another attack. No gunshots, no explosions, no mass commotion on the streets. I relaxed and figured it must just be a car crash or something. It's scary how a fatal car crash is now a relief in contrast to a large scale terrorist attack. The streets were much quieter than normal and a bouncer at the bar said it had been a long time since they'd seen a Friday night so empty. The thought of an attack isn't constantly on my mind, but I'm pointing out the increased incidences I've experienced. Exactly a week has passed since the Paris attacks, and people are scared. I'm scared.
I'm 26 and in the West, my generation has generally lived through times of relative safety. I remember hearing stories from grandparents of the war and how families would hide in shelters whilst the whistling of bombs could be heard overhead. No-one could be sure if it was going to land in the next suburb or directly on your house. Are we now in a temporary phase until ISIS is brought down, or are we headed towards a new era of fear, death and war? As all these thoughts compile in my mind, I think of how the people of the Middle East have been enduring these same fears for as long as I can remember. Imagine a life living with the constant possibility of death at any time. Then they try to leave their countries and face discrimination and bigotry in their new home.
I don't know what is needed to resolve the conflict in Syria. I do know however, that retaliation on home soil is not the answer. Rising racial attacks toward Muslim immigrants and citizens need to stop. Between 2010 and 2014, the number of people who reported seeing Islamophobia directed at someone else spiked from 50 per cent to 82 per cent. It's not just about physical assaults; it's about racial slurs thrown in the street and hate-filled Facebook posts written by ignorant cyber trolls. Saying that ISIS represents Islam is about as true as saying that the KKK represents Catholicism. Rather than divide, we need to unite with Muslims in our community. They are not to blame for the actions of a small group of extremists in Syria. Muslims are our friends, doctors, lawyers, store clerks, football coaches, waiters, musicians, cab drivers, bartenders, artists, DJ's, chefs, computer technicians, police officers and much more. They are not the enemy.
It's time to unite, keep calm, and carry on.
Australian journalist and TV presenter Waleed Aly said it best here: http://www.pedestrian.tv/news/arts-and-culture/watch-waleed-aly-explains-how-we-can-defeat-isis--/f21b5e33-38bb-4b0e-afd6-c45656b62a34.htm