Friday, 13 May 2011

Sad sign of the times?

Yesterday I did something I've never done before, and which made me surprised at myself.

I was on the bus home from work when, about four stops before mine, three guys got on. I'll get this out the way straight away - they were of what I would call Middle Eastern appearance (I have no idea if that's what they were, or if there's a PC way of saying that isn't going to upset someone but there you go). I had glanced out of the bus window while people were getting on and noticed the men talking to each other in the queue so I assumed, not unreasonably, that they knew each other.

Having bought their tickets, they then did something which I found rather odd - they separated, one went to almost the back row, one sat two rows in front of me and the third sat near the door on the folding-down, sideways seats. They were all carrying either a rucksack or a courier bag. Having sat down, they didn't speak or interact with each other again in any way, nor did they make eye contact. The guy nearest the door got a huge pair of headphones out of his bag, then some kind of smartphone, donned the headphones and seconds later, his lips were moving though no sound was coming out.

I don't know quite how long it took me to start feeling somewhat nervous but by the time we'd reached the stop two before my own, I'd decided to get off the bus and walk the rest of the way.

It's not like I actually sat there thinking "OK, these guys have to be terrorists because they look of Middle Eastern origin and have bags" but more "That is very weird behaviour"! Needless to say, having got off the bus, I watched it disappear on its way with no disasters and it's now no surprise that today's news wasn't full of "Suicide bombers hit Brighton bus".

It has, however, made me wonder a few things. Would I have had the same feelings if the three guys had been white? Or black? Or women? Or if I hadn't noticed them seemingly talking to each other in the bus queue?

Thinking back on it, my reaction seems extreme and unwarranted but I know that I was certainly feeling very uncomfortable during that short part of the journey - enough to make me get off (and walk uphill to get home!)

Is this a sad reflection on the times we live in? I like to think of myself as fairly unjudgemental - certainly at least on the basis of someone's appearance (like everyone else, I'm as judgemental as the next person once I've experienced someone's behaviour or attitudes) and I've always been very anti people being tarred with the same brush purely because of historical events. And yet that was, at least partly, what I did. I'm still mildly disappointed with myself but I can't guarantee that I wouldn't do exactly the same thing again.


  1. Years ago in the eighties I was travelling through Kings Cross station in London and having a drink with a colleague in the bar as we had time to kill. A guy with an Irish accent joined us and he seemed a nice enough guy to chat with. Then he said, "Would you mind looking after my bag while I go for a pee?" He'd been gone about 30 seconds when my colleague said, "He's Irish, that's a big bag, and this is a crowded station at 11 in the morning". We edged away from the bag and were seriously thinking about raising the alarm when he returned. He was perfectly innocent of any terrorist activities, but I have often thought about what I should or have not done.

  2. Sadly, unless you're a very naive, sheltered person, I think it's now just human nature to be mildly suspicious of a lot of people. Sometimes we question their motives, their actions or their plans but usually our suspicions are based not on what they might or might not have done but on what someone similar has done in the past. What a way to live. But live like this we do.

  3. If you did anything wrong it was in not staying on the bus and observing the three chaps a little longer to try and determine whether or not your fears were justified. If you had ended up feeling that your fears were justified, then you would have had to alert the bus driver.

    I was in northern England years ago staying in a town named Penwrith for an out-of-country assignment for work. I was transmitting pictures from my hotel room back to Canada using a Leafax. This was a computer and film scanner in a stainless steel case.

    Because the phone plugs are different in England than in Canada I had to take the phone jack apart and alligator clip my unit to the telephone line. I left the whole thing in place when I went to breakfast and the cleaning staff discovered my set-up. They immediately fled the hotel and refused to return until the manager had inspected my equipment. They were worried that I might be working for an Irish terrorist organization and would phone my room and remotely trigger a bomb.

    If I couldn't show the manager immediately that this was a film scanner/transmitter, I was told the hotel would be emptied of staff and guests and the police called. I was told the police would likely blow up my equipment as a safety precaution. Luckily I was able to satisfy the manager that I was just a traveling photojournalist from Canada and posed no threat.

    I did not take offense. I did not blame the folk who were frightened. I understood their fears.

    You have no reason to feel "mildly disappointed" in yourself. If the bus had blown, you might have had a reason as you did nothing but you did nothing because you were not really confident that anything was truly going down. And you were clearly right. Good call.