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Paranoia leads to thought-provoking situations

Brian Doxtader | Thursday, March 22, 2007

I spent spring break in Europe with my roommates James and Adam. It was, in many ways, an eye-opening experience. One night, we decided to attend a showing of “Les Miserables” at the Queen’s Theater in London. After spending the day exploring the city, we arrived at the theater for the evening’s performance.

After finding our seats, we went off to the bar to get something to eat and drink. We sat there for maybe 20 minutes, after which they dimmed the lights and an announcement via speaker asked everyone to return to their seats.

We noticed that there didn’t appear to be very many people in our section, but didn’t think much of it until we got to our seats. There, to our surprise, a security guard was holding a brown messenger bag.

“That’s my bag,” said Adam.

“This is yours?” asked the security guard. “Ticket please.”

Adam complied, and the guard shook his head angrily.

“You oughtn’t have left it unattended, you know – keep all your belongings with you at all times.”

The guard turned, and that’s when we noticed that our section of the theater only appeared empty because the theater workers had held the occupants back while Adam’s bag was investigated. After the guard gave the “OK,” the patrons began to saunter back in, clearly annoyed with the inconvenience.

A distinguished-looking couple – a middle-age English woman and a comparably aged black man – sat next to us.

“Was that your bag?” asked the man, with more than a hint of disdain. “You oughtn’t have left it alone.”

“I know,” Adam said. “I didn’t think anything of it.”

“Don’t you know it might’ve been a bomb?”

“Why would someone put a bomb here?” I asked. The man gave me his best “stupid Americans” look.

“What do you mean ‘why’?” he said.

“I mean, it doesn’t make any sense…” I started.

“Of course it doesn’t make any sense,” he snapped. “Terrorists bringing bombs on the tube and blowing up half the city doesn’t make any sense either, does it?”

He had clearly misinterpreted my question – when I said “here” I was referring to the 20-pound nosebleed cheap seats in the second balcony where we were sitting, not the theater as a general statement.

“It may not make sense to you and it certainly doesn’t make sense to me, but that’s the way it is,” the man continued breathlessly. “People blowing each other up in the tubes. And for what? Some kind of political or religious statement? Senseless.”

I leaned back and decided not to remind him that we were about to watch a show that featured students violently barricading the streets as a political statement.

By the next day, I had largely forgotten the previous night’s little fiasco, except as a humorous – and no doubt embarrassing to Adam – anecdote. That evening we rode on a crowded tube toward Piccadilly Circus when we noticed an unattended suitcase. It was brown and tattered, with the name “OBAMA” etched on the top and some writing in a language I didn’t recognize on the side. The three of us regarded the seemingly abandoned case and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck slowly rise.

“What do you think?” whispered Adam.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Don’t touch it.”

We looked around for a potential owner, but the closest occupants were an elderly woman and a British couple cradling a child. I started to back away from the case, slowly edging myself toward the other end of the tube – not that it would have really mattered had the case really contained a bomb.

“It’s all right,” I said to Adam. “Don’t say anything.”

“Let’s get off at the next stop,” recommended James. Adam and I nodded in agreement, nervously waiting out the tube’s bumpy approach to its next destination.

Finally, James decided it wasn’t worth waiting and loudly inquired if the case belonged to anyone. A man, sitting across the tube, claimed ownership, saying simply, “It’s mine.”

We all breathed out and remained on the tube until our final destination, but I know that for me a full sense of relief only came when I stepped off the tube at Piccadilly Circus.

Afterward, we were all embarrassed. What a silly, paranoid, senseless turn of events. Of course there was no threat; no more than the night before, when Adam’s bag became the subject of consternation in the Queen’s Theater. Still, the pall of the event lingered and I couldn’t help thinking that our fears were not entirely unfounded – especially in light of our seat-partner’s willful paranoia concerning the tube the night prior.

Such senseless violence rocked London back in July of 2005 (the incident to which the man was referring), when four suicide bombers killed 52 commuters and injured 700 more. With that context in mind, it’s easier to see why there was such a fiasco at the theater.

It is a strange and deeply disturbing feeling to step onto an everyday mode of transportation with lingering doubts about safety – even two years removed from the original tragedy.

London’s solution is obvious – there are closed-circuit cameras everywhere, monitoring for criminal behavior. Yet there is something vaguely sinister, vaguely “1984”-ish about such an approach. You can’t walk around London without the suspicions that your every move is being watched, and I question whether the added security is worth what feels like a gross invasion of privacy. Standing on that tube, I understood that it made no difference whether or not the London police saw the events unfold – if there really were a bomb, the footage from the camera (had it survived) would merely have made its way to the elegiac reports of the senseless tragedy on CNN and the BBC.

I offer no solutions – I would not be so presumptuous as to try to neatly offer an answer to a problem that the world’s greatest minds have spent years trying to solve. I only know that for a brief instant, I saw the world through different eyes – eyes that were always alert, eyes that were always guarded, eyes that belonged to those who constantly live in fear and suspicion – and I did not like what I saw.

Senseless.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.