We may be forever haunted by the image of a child’s body, laying covered with a thermal blanket, her doll by her side on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The innocent young life of this little girl was ended, along
with 83 others, when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel ploughed a 19 tonne truck into a crowd who were gathered to celebrate Bastille Day.
It is a national holiday, one which acknowledges the French Revolution and remembers the struggle to achieve freedom and liberty. But the appreciation of freedom, liberty and humanity were not present in the heinous actions of Bouhlel.
We are not desensitised to these crimes. Every loss and maiming of life, every act of terrorism ignites an outpouring of public grief, of solidarity and empathy. But the very indiscriminate nature of terrorism also plays to our worst fears, that next time it could be us or someone we love. It makes us worry that at some point in the future we won’t just be viewing events from afar through the prism of rolling news.
I certainly appreciate that feeling, because 11 years ago, when four violent extremists carried out an attack on London, it wasn’t someone else who was directly affected, it was me.
The memory of that morning in July, 2005 is still as vivid as if the events that changed my life happened a week ago. I was just on my way to work, it was just another Thursday in London. I was running late and out of my usual perfectly choreographed commute, tired from celebrating our Olympic bid success the day before.
A suicide bomber and I, unknowingly, boarded the same Tube carriage, at the same time, standing apparently just feet apart.
I don’t remember seeing him, in fact I don’t recall specifically looking at anyone because I followed the unwritten rules of commuting - to not engage with anyone, there was no direct eye contact, no invitation to start a conversation. As we stood tightly together I can only guess that ‘he’ saw me, that he looked at all of us before detonating his deathly bomb.
His ambition? Well, that is much simpler to explain. He wanted to kill and maim indiscriminately. He didn’t know any of us, he didn’t know what we believed, there is no way he could legitimise his actions unless he saw us all as the enemy. He created the division and with it we were dehumanised. There was an ‘us’ and a ‘them’.
In detonating his bomb, he murdered 26 precious lives. I was almost one of them. Remarkably, though, and against so many odds, I survived, but I live with the most horrific injuries, namely losing both legs due to the direct force of the explosion.
I understood just who and what humanity really is when I first saw the identity tag which was given to me when I was admitted to hospital. It read, ‘One Unknown, Estimated Female’. As chilling as this label was, it became a brilliant gift. In fact I would say that the sentiment of this label actually allowed the continuation of my life and gave me the strength to find a way forward.
Whilst the bomber segregated and acted on presumption, the rescuers did the exact opposite. Those whose aim was to save lives and to heal serious injury, did so by putting their own lives at considerable risk. To them, it didn’t matter if I was rich or poor or what the colour of my skin was or whether I had a faith or no faith at all. Nothing mattered other than I was a precious human being.
Throughout the chaos of my rescue, my hand was held tightly and my face was stroked gently. Laying in what was left of that Tube carriage, I experienced incredible feelings of absolute love. These people didn’t know me, and there lays the gift of anonymity.
I have come to see myself as living proof of the transformational effect that unconditional human respect and love can have. Not only am I alive because of it, but I have been able to re build a life that is free from hatred and bitterness, and most importantly, driven to heed their example and pursue making a positive difference as my priority.
As I write this three days of public mourning has come to an end in Nice and I am watching a crowd of people once again gather on the Promenade des Anglais, but this time they are linked, arm to arm forming a human chain.
In all the anger and all the fear of more terrorist attacks, I am reminded that there is such a strength that can be drawn from unity and building on our commonality, our shared humanity. We have to be united together in the face of violent extremism, and in defiance of people who choose to take that path.
Terrorism seeks to not only destroy life, but to evoke a fear so great that it robs us of rational thought. My greatest fear is that terrorism will succeed in dividing our communities and instill a hatred and suspicion for ‘the other’ that may take a generation or generations to shift.
However, whenever I have doubts I remind myself that me and the many other survivors of atrocities are ultimately living proof that those tactics don’t work and that humanity will prevail.
So what can we do in the wake of Nice? Well, imagine if for every incident of terrorism, we responded with positive, life affirming acts of humanity. That could be powerful and speak volumes to those who believe their pursuit of power and position through extremism will never break the brilliance and strength of humanity.