As all of us know, terrorist attacks carried out by a group known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, depending on your preference, rocked Paris in late November, only a week or two before I was set to depart on my mini-term to London.
When I learned that a college student from California, studying abroad in Paris, had been killed in the Paris attacks, it was especially startling and poignant for me, as a student slated to go on a short term abroad in a large metropolitan area.
While I was there, I saw the effects of the attacks, both in myself and in others. There were the obvious signs of the heightened terror threat, like the looming security forces at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.
The security forces at the palace’s entry points were wielding assault rifles, and there was not one moment when I felt that they were being inattentive to the massive number of bodies packed into the space in front of the palace.
I’m sure they were aware, as I was, that the changing of the guard would be an extraordinarily symbolic location for an attack.
And this is another sign of the effects of the attacks: my own heightened awareness of the patterns of terrorist attacks and the mentality of a terrorist group in selecting the ideal location for an attack.
I was born into a pre-9/11 world (and a pre-9/11 upstate New York), and, at the age of seven, I watched that world change dramatically, but I was not yet old enough to become paranoid — sure, I had the nightmares about plane crashes and fires, just like every other kid I knew, but the attack didn’t change the way I viewed the world.
The Paris attacks, however, have made their way into my psyche, as an adult who can process such tragedy and understand that, just as it affected a girl from California, it could affect me.
At the changing of the guard, I wasn’t able to pay attention to the pomp unfolding in front of me; instead, I was glancing around at all the people within my line of sight, and even those behind me and far off to the sides, straining to see anything suspicious before it happened.
At the far end of the Millennium Bridge, prior to my group’s tour of Shakespeare’s Globe, I spotted a bag left unattended, covered in London-related images that led me to believe it had probably, at one point, been purchased from a tourist kiosk in the city.
But instead of walking past the bag without taking particular note of it, I felt anxiety grip my throat, thinking, “The Millennium Bridge would be another extraordinarily symbolic location for a terrorist attack because it would essentially be a recreation of the scene in Harry Potter,” and I was very relieved when we cleared the area surrounding the bridge.
In the first week and a half that I was in London, there was a knife attack at a tube station that the New York Times wrote officials “called a ‘terrorist incident,’” which left several people injured.
In that first week and a half, there was also a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 people dead and 18 injured — the result of a couple who were radicalized and had a veritable armory at their disposal, according to most major news outlets.
As I was writing the first draft of this piece during my first week and a half in London, I received a blast from the New York Times iPhone app that read, “Americans’ fear of terrorism is as high as immediately after 9/11, New York Times/CBS News poll finds,” and I am living proof that that is probably true.
While I was there, I was mostly able to enjoy my time. Yet there were moments of anxiety and stress about terrorism that were, shall we say, unpleasant.
Where I found comfort was in those reminders that the terrorists are a very, very small minority and that most people don’t have any interest in killing other people.
When some friends and I were heading to the Angels Market at the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, we stepped off of the tube and were immediately greeted by a peaceful prayer protest. A large group of Islamic Londoners were gathered in front of Hyde Park to pray and hold signs that read, among others, “Islam … is peace, love, humanity.”
When I was wandering the streets of London, I came across a bit of street art on Charing Cross Road that reminded viewers, “Selective pain is inhumane,” and demonstrated support and solidarity for all of the nations, including France, that have experienced terrorist attacks recently.
Those little moments of protest and those messages of peace and solidarity with people experiencing terror at the hands of radical groups were what reminded me of why my trip to London was so important.
Traveling so soon after the Paris attacks did not just signify something fun to do or the opportunity to enrich my mind — although the London Mini-Term certainly did deliver on both of those things.
Traveling was also an act of defiance against terrorist groups who would like for us to be too scared to leave our homes, who would like to see us abandon our fun and our gatherings and our mutual acts of humanity.
The trip was important for so many reasons, and one of the most significant is that it was nonessential, but it was exciting and fun and a celebration of the group’s academic achievements at Union.
It afforded the opportunity to broaden our horizons and become aware of the world around us in new and extraordinary ways, which is not something terrorists would want us to do, and which is one of the many reasons why it’s so important that we continue to do it.