Newspaper readers - like newspaper writers - can be forgiven for taking a somewhat forlorn view of human nature. The characters that make the headlines are, by and large, disheartening: celebrities, kiddy-fiddlers, jobsworths, thugs and warmongers. It is easy to forget that, by definition, these people are the exception rather than the rule. Newsgathering is largely a matter of skimming off the scum that has risen to the surface of society.
What lies beneath - the unassuming goodness of most people, most of the time - is a miracle that goes almost unnoticed. It is this that makes the trial of the alleged 21/7 terrorists so fascinating: not their simple-minded - and ultimately farcical - attempt at jihad, but the reactions of the commuters they tried to blow up.
The court heard this week, for example, from Angus Campbell, 43, who was travelling on the Northern Line when Ramzi Mohammed allegedly tried to detonate his home-made bomb. There was a loud bang; smoke billowed from Mohammed's rucksack, and panic ensued. Campbell admitted he was "cowed" with fear, yet his first thought was to help a mother and baby into the safety of the next carriage. "I wanted to run away," he said, "but I couldn't leave her. She had problems with the buggy."
Having done the chivalrous thing, he returned to the deserted carriage for a mano-a-mano chat with the would-be martyr. "I was just shouting at him. I was probably swearing," Campbell bashfully confessed. "I shouted at him, 'You're scaring us. I can help you, but I need you to lie down' - but he became agitated and aggressive."
Ah, you may say, but Campbell is a fireman by trade: heroism is his bread and butter. Consider, in that case, the unremarkable credentials of the passengers who tried to apprehend Mohammed as he fled through Oval station: the IT worker who attempted to trip him up; the retired engineer who told the court: "I felt I was morally obliged to try to intercept him. I grabbed him by his forearms. I did my best but he was too slippery"; the 72-year-old antiquarian bookseller who pelted up the stairs after him until "I sort of ran out of steam"; or the florist who chased Mohammed through the barriers and into the street.
The evidence of this trial is not just that people are braver than we might expect; they are kinder, too. Ann Coyne was travelling home from a hospital appointment with her mother-in-law when Hussein Osman boarded her Hammersmith and City Line train. "There was a big bang and all of a sudden this person hit the roof of the train and landed at my feet," she told the court.
Although this was only two weeks after the bombings of 7 July, Coyne's first instinct was not fear but concern. "I remember going over to the young lad and saying, 'Are you OK, mate?' He was lying on the floor with his arms outstretched. He was just dazed, like he couldn't believe he was there."
It wasn't until Coyne's mother-in-law pointed out the bomb strapped to the lad's back that she realised he had been trying to murder her.
The extraordinary thing about people like Coyne or Campbell is that they are not entirely extraordinary. Evolution requires us to be selfish, suspicious and risk-averse, and most of us obey. As the US critic Martin Kitman put it: "If God wanted us to be brave, why did He give us legs?"
Yet ordinary people can and do defy their Darwinian instincts, every day. Most random acts of heroism or grace go unreported - precisely because they make the world a better place, averting the headline-grabbing disaster.
Last year, for example, two armed robbers attacked the corner shop on my street. It's a tiny place, no bigger than a galley kitchen, stuffed to the ceiling with comestibles. Tina, the proprietor, was chatting to a heavily pregnant neighbour, Mel, when the men in balaclavas burst in. They pointed their guns at the two women and demanded the contents of the till.
"I just saw red," Tina told me afterwards. "How dare they wave a gun at a pregnant woman? How dare they take my money, as if it was their right?" So she put her head down, roared like a bull and charged straight into the stomach of the nearest assailant.
A terrible fight ensued, in which Tina's face was badly beaten and one of her dreadlocks ripped from her scalp; but the robbers, stunned by the ferocity of her resistance, eventually scarpered. "I'm kicking myself now," grumbled Tina the next day. "I should have jumped in the car and chased after them."
Tina's triumph was not reported in the papers. No shots were fired, after all; no money stolen, no have-a-go hero tragically slain. Nevertheless, until she moved away to do a philosophy degree, it gave me great comfort to know that I was just three doors down from One of Them: those apparently normal mortals whose sense of justice is stronger than their fear.Reuse content