Deborah Orr: A lesson from New York in surviving this season of fear

'Untimely mass deaths are not interesting to us unless they are part of this huge, horrific tapestry of terror'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It felt more important and difficult than ever yesterday to believe in the possibility of peace on earth and goodwill to all men. With an autumnal run-up featuring thousands upon thousands of senseless, pointless, nightmarish deaths, this Christmas was always going to be a strange, uneasy one.

But the news on Christmas Eve that a man had been apprehended on a plane trying to light the fuse of a bomb in his shoes sounded a bizarre and chilling note of additional terror at a time when the West is already scared out of its skin. Will these people stop at nothing? And will nothing stop them? This time, an air stewardess smelt sulphur and prevented the horror. But, as we know only too well, devilish activities do not always bring with them such a fitting warning.

What a travesty of faith the suicide bomber is, what a perversion of the religious spirit, regardless of which organised religion you may or may not subscribe to. The suicide bomber is the acme of what you might call bad faith. And the power of this bad faith is huge.

These times we are living through are not the first to have seen religious belief used in justification for all that human belief in a greater power should help us to stand against. But they are the first in which these travesties are relayed to us in full colour, 24 hours a day. They are the first in which we can stay up all night on the internet, gathering ever more information on that which threatens us. They are the first in which we can exchange many angry views by e-mail, with many people we do not know and will never, ever meet.

We can stay constantly in touch with our terror. Have we been able to look away, even for a day? Should we? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing, that this terror obsesses us? Somehow death itself has been redefined by the terror that we have been inculcated with this year.

Some weeks after the 11 September atrocities, an aircraft crashed into the New York suburbs. The news that the deaths of more than a hundred people had been due merely to mechanical failure was greeted with relief. Under the circumstances, that relief may be understandable. For these deaths did not bring with them massive political repercussions. But it might also suggest that untimely, tragic mass deaths are not as interesting to us now unless they are part of the huge, horrific tapestry of terror inflicted by one human on another that has woven itself so firmly into our daily lives.

Here in Britain, other news items have briefly stolen the limelight from the epic story that transfixes us. We have considered the MMR jab, for example, and have rather hysterically posited how we might visit random, needless affliction on our children by submitting them to a public health programme.

We have considered again the death of Sarah Payne, and the legal edifice we might build to ensure that what happened to her will happen to no other children. We are heartsick to learn that the man responsible could quite easily have been stopped, if wiser decisions had been made in the past. We find no comfort in the knowledge that such deaths are rare, even without the resolve we now have to tackle them.

We have also jailed Gary Hart for a decade because he is the unluckiest man ever to have driven when he hadn't had enough sleep. His sentence is an example to others who might drive when tired. It is also an assurance that such an extraordinary culmination of circumstances will never happen again, when no such assurance is possible, needful, or in any practical way helpful.

These stories were, of course, important to us even before 11 September. But in the light of those events, it becomes obvious that all of them involve infinitesimal chances of death or injury, terrorisms of the heart and home, inflicted on humans by humans. Inoculation, paedophile, exhausted driver, suicide bomber: all of these are bringing that fearful terror in bigger or smaller doses – the slaughter of the innocent, unpredictable attacks on unsuspecting civilians.

A home office statement tells us Britain is vulnerable to a "nuclear attack, an attack on the London underground... a chemical or biological attack..." We have also been told, again and again in the wake of 11 September, that we should get on with our lives, that this is the best, most helpful thing we can do. There is, though, a nagging difficulty with these instructions. From the first they have centred on the importance of us remaining economically active – shopping, spending, working, engaged in the act of creating wealth. But at the same time, and regardless of the other characteristics of the conflicts blossoming like cancer around us, we see that the poor sponsor terror and the rich sponsor bombing.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, setting the spiritual keynote for the nation at Christmas, advises us that some of this conflict is caused by the sense of anger generated by poverty. We see this poverty on television, and wonder if our ceaseless economic activity really will change their world. Then we're told that a ship sitting off the Isle of Wight may carry weapons that may have been designed to destroy us. That bombing has been resumed in Afghanistan. That more Israelis have been killed for being Israelis. Will we be killed for being British? What should we do – get on with life, or fret about the sugar boat?

The wisest answer I have heard to this question came from my American brother-in-law, Nick Adams. He is a professor of architectural history at Vassar in upstate New York. He has been concerned that after 11 September his students had become entirely unable to engage with their subject. Nick felt strongly that they should, and decided at the end of term to tell them so.

"We are born, we live, and we will die," he said in his lecture. "In that respect we are no different from those architects we have studied in this course. How remarkable that they found the energy to make the dome of Florence Cathedral, the Palazzo Rucellai, the Tempietto, or the Palazzo de Té. Not just because they are ingenious in themselves but because they were created in an environment in which the future was cloudy, as cloudy as is ours, perhaps cloudier still, in a time and a place when death was far more proximate."

This seems to me to be true, not just for architecture students, but for all of us. Whatever we have chosen to do in our lives, it is important for us to engage with those things more, rather than less, passionately. My brother-in-law also explains that he does not wish for his students to ignore the political situation. He suggests instead that "by aggravating the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it, war asks us to be just a little clearer about what we are doing and why".

I hope that for all of us, however difficult it might have been, this Christmas brought some of that sort of clarity. Now is a time when we should be asking urgently about the possibility of gaining peace on earth and bringing goodwill to all men. Technology – the internet, the plane, the bomb – cannot do this for us, no matter how much we wish it could be so. But our own acts of faith in a better future can.