August 1, 2005
Thoughts from Russell Square
Laurie Patton is winship distinguished research professor in the humanities and chair of religion
I have never taken much stock in President George W. Bush’s admonition to shop as part of our patriotic duty in response to 9/11. But in the weeks since the London bombings, I’ve been thinking about something else: the fragility of human decency, and its power as a weapon in fighting terror.
I was in Russell Square the morning of July 7, when two of the bombs exploded, one on the tube and one on a double-decker bus, and it left me with a new appreciation for one way we can prepare for terrorist attacks: by developing the everyday habit of civility. Decency, I learned that day, means acknowledging another person’s reality, even when it may not be in one’s interest to do so.
That morning I had arrived at the University of London, where a group of scholars were welcomed warmly to a conference on the “Mahabharata,” an ancient Indian epic about a devastating war between cousins. Welcoming speeches were interrupted by the quiet announcement that there had been a bombing close by, and we were asked to stay inside. The cell phone network had stopped working, and so we raced to the computers to let our loved ones know we were OK.
We decided to soldier on with the conference. During a coffee break, I snuck out to a courtyard to see what was happening. Sirens wailed and the smell of smoke was everywhere. A policeman came up to me with a smile and said, “Best to stay inside, love. You can do your thinking better in there.” I was puzzled at how the bobby knew I was a scholar, or that I needed to think—and why he even mentioned it at all since his mind no doubt was on preventing public chaos—but simply chalked it up to his being an unusual policeman. I was wrong.
At about seven that evening, we were finally allowed outside. Russell Square had been completely shut down, and it was eerily quiet—like the moments after a heavy snowfall, when even footprints don’t make a sound. My companion and I, an Emory graduate student, also attending the conference, thought it would be easy to cross the square. To a policeman, we pointed toward our hotel, about 100 yards away, and said we wanted to go there. The policeman replied, “Sorry, we need to provide you with an escort. You’ll have to wait for my colleague, or else ask for an escort on the other side. Here’s the route we suggest you take.” He gave us detailed directions.
We ended the evening by walking about two hours on the London streets, still quiet as snow, just to get to the block near our hotel. Everywhere we saw lost and frightened people desperate to get home. How did the policeman have time to give us such detailed directions? Indeed, those directions were, for me, the best antidote to fear. And the policemen knew that. Decency, I also learned that day, means unglamorous, unnoticed acts of public cooperation.
When we arrived within 50 yards of the hotel, it was still evacuated. Its back entrance was near the tube station that was bombed, and its front entrance was down the block from the bus bombing. We could still see the twisted wreckage of the bus, its sides splayed out like two red accusing fingers pointing at both sides of the street.
A crowd waited for an escort to walk the last 100 feet to the hotel. Nearby, the Pizza Hut and McDonald’s were closed, but other local restaurants had begun to open, and piano music drifted out from their doors. As the crowd patiently waited, a young man wearing headphones pushed through the lines and sauntered into the empty sidewalk toward the bus. A policeman grabbed him by the ear and pulled him back. (I hadn’t seen anyone being pulled by the ear since fifth grade.)
“Hey mate!” the policeman said, pointing toward a cordon of yellow police tape. “Can you read this sign for me?” The young man read: Do not cross. The policeman continued to bellow, pointing toward us, “You see all these patient people? You see them? What makes you think you’re different from them? What?” The young man had no reply. “Well, you just think about it,” the policeman said, shoving him into the police car for a minute to stew, then letting him out.
My colleague and I finally walked down Southampton Street for dinner, the bus still in view behind us, the smell of smoke still occasionally burning our nostrils. When we arrived at a little Italian café, the owner and the waitress greeted us with a lavish dessert case as we sat down for pasta. At one point during dinner, I said to the owner, “You’re certainly cheery in here!”
“Well,” he replied with a wink, “you’ve got to enjoy your meal and play the piano, then, don’t you?”
Outside, his patrons sat at tables in full view of the ravaged bus. No one ignored it, but no one gave in, either, and the little restaurant kept on—desserts, piano, pasta and all. Human decency, I learned that evening, means affirming life at the very moment of terror—not in its aftermath, not upon later reflection, but in its very presence.
These tiny instances of affirming life in the presence of terror were not limited to that horrible day alone. They continued even in the grim aftermath of sorting the wreckage and recovering the remains. In the little lane over the tube stop where they were still digging out bodies trapped in the subway car, there was a Tudor pub with bright red petunias. On the pub sign, there was a brightly painted St. Bernard with a rescue flask. The sign read, “Friends at Hand.” The morning I left, you could still hear the drilling and the shouts as they worked to free the bodies near the tube station.
That morning, a little man with a watering can came up to speak with the policeman guarding the lane. “Got to get to my petunias,” he said brightly. “They’re everyone’s favorite!” The policeman laughed and let him through. He watched the little man tend to his flower boxes as the drilling went on beneath them.
The daily habits of all these people—the policemen, the restaurant and pub owners—were simple. They were verbal habits of politeness; they were the great British custom of waiting in the queue; and they were the wry sense of humor in the midst of chaos. These were habits practiced every day, long before the terror. When that terror came, that most fragile of human traits, plainspoken decency, was the quiet and yet immeasurably effective weapon in the face of those who would prefer widespread destruction and panic.
These people, I learned that day, had already been preparing for the insanity, whether they knew it or not. Keeping the world sane was no special effort. It was, rather, a matter of keeping those most valuable habits alive.