Terrorism has changed London in so many ways. Often, we don't even notice it. It's usual to be stuck at the train station, with no bin to put your gum in, because the IRA hid bombs in public litter bins. We hear the announcements every time we travel on the train — Please take all your personal belongings with you when leaving the train, and keep them with you at all times whilst on the platform. Terrorism is everywhere, but it is nowhere. London has changed, but is it for the better?
I was in London on Friday 15th September when an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) went off on a packed tube train. I was in class, and the first time I heard of it was about ten o'clock, when my tutor spoke.
“If anyone wants to make a phone call they can,” she said, or words to that effect. “There's been an explosion.”
It's London. It's 2017. Of course your mind jumps to terrorism. But I didn't feel that cold shock that I had on the last few incidents, in Borough Market, in Manchester, on Westminster Bridge and in Finsbury Park. No, all of a sudden this was to be expected. It was like we had all been waiting for it.
I knew it must be London. Firstly, it would be unlikely that the tutor would pause the lesson if it was up north in Manchester or Birmingham. Secondly, this is almost always going to be the best choice to stage an attack. London has literally millions of people a day walking its streets and taking its trains. Who's going to notice a lone white van, about to skid off the road into as many pedestrians as it can? Who will take the time to report the unattended Lidl bag, about to explode? Despite the posters circulated since 7/7, and the announcements on every train and tube at every station, no one thought that it was going to happen to them. And that's what makes it terrifying.
A couple of people left the room to make their calls. Half a dozen others sent out texts. Then we got on with the lesson. Why shouldn't we? In a statement criticised by the American president, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said that terrorist attacks were “part and parcel” of living in a large city. He's right, of course. Before Westminster Bridge, I had thought of terrorism as a uniquely French thing, bizarre as it sounds, because of the likes of Charlie Hebdo and so on. When Westminster Bridge happened, I found myself thinking, “What if it was me?” Only a few months earlier I had walked that bridge happily. But my mindset quickly changed, and so had my classmates’. Once the calls were made and the texts sent, we returned to the lesson with no more talk. This has become our new normal. And it's nothing. As I said, millions of people in London, once every month or two, five die all at the same time. We're not being bombed every day by the Russians and Americans. Nuclear bombs aren't flying over our heads every week like Japan. We live in a big city. We get on with it.
Despite our nonchalance, in our cosy college classroom just five hundred metres from where a car drove into pedestrians earlier in the year, London was on the move. By the time we left at the end of the day, there was a police car parked just outside. When I got off my train in the middle class suburb I live in, there were two Met officers on the platform. They weren't armed, but they were there. The announcements on the train had changed. Report any unattended items. Call the police if anything seems suspicious. And that brought my mind back to my train journey in that morning.
Because at the very moment that emergency services were rushing to Parsons Green, I was standing next to a man reading the Qu’ran to himself.
I didn't think he was a terrorist. No, he was dressed for work. He was relaxed, as relaxed as you can get on a commuter train. And the other passengers probably weren't thinking it either. No one awkwardly shifted away. No one changed carriage. The attack hadn't hit the news yet.
But as I listened to the announcement several hours later, I thought about what an incredibly brave man he must have been. The terrorist attack in Finsbury Park proves it: London is becoming more Islamophobic. So to stand there, with your cute zip-up Qu’ran, reading your favourite passages under your breath in Arabic — that must have taken nerves. But I'm betting, however brave he was on the way in, he had stowed his Qu’ran away on the journey home.