Preposterous Universe

Thursday, July 07, 2005

When I arrived in Paris, I was hoping to zip quickly through customs, as I hadn't checked any baggage. But there was a huge line at passport control, for which the explanation was readily apparent: there wasn't anyone manning the booths, so nobody was going through. We stood for a while in line, quietly grumbling. Suddenly there was a muffled bang that startled the waiting travelers; over a railing we could see security officers dealing with some sort of equipment. Had they just set off a controlled explosion of a suspicious-looking parcel? I have no idea, but officials soon appeared at the passport control booths and we began to move expeditiously through the checkpoints, fanning out to escape the airport.

It's not so easy to forget the possibility of a terrorist attack here -- there are no ordinary metal trash cans on the streets, just transparent green plastic bags hanging from metal hoops. The preference for plastic bags over metal cans goes back to the series of subway attacks in Paris in the mid-Nineties. Even though I'm sure that car crashes (or scooter accidents, in this city) are statistically a much greater threat to one's health, the constant reminders of more horrific possibilities must exact quite a psychic toll.

Now London has been attacked in a series of bombings. The explosions targeted the public-transportation system at the height of rush hour -- clearly designed to kill and hurt the largest possible number of people. The city is used to terrorism, having dealt with the IRA for so many years, except that you never really get used to it. I wonder if the culprits have any feeling whatsoever that their actions will really help redress whatever wrongs they perceive, or whether they act out of simple mindless rage?

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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