I’m going to preface this blog by announcing that this emphatically is NOT a party political broadcast, but an observation about how we as a society can overcome polarization.
Today, we here in the UK woke up to a general election result, where one side (the Conservatives) obtained a landslide victory. Inevitably, in any election, there are winners and losers, people who are happy with the result and people who despair that their side was crushed.
And in this age of social media, where everybody can voice an instant public opinion and the tone has been so drastically lowered (witness some of our politicians needing security and others dealing with hate mail, death threats and vandalism), it’s easy to argue that the country will be divided as never before.
To say this is to overlook one simple fact: the simple power and goodness of the human spirit, our overwhelming urge to connect and give, particularly in any calamity.
As a resident of the UK, I must reach for examples in Britain, but the same is true everywhere in the world.
Consider the recent terrorist attack on London Bridge November 29. There was Usman Khan, convicted of terrorist offences in 2012 and released early after serving less than half of his sentence, attending a prisoner rehabilitation conference at Fishmongers’ Hall.
Armed with two knife, he slashed and killed Cambridge University graduates Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt (who ironically had focused his studies on prisoner rehabilitation), and wounding three others.
One of the people hearing the Jones’ screams was John Crilly, who’d been jailed for murder after a burglary went awry and who was also attending the conference.
Crilly ran downstairs to where the screams were coming from, and saw Jones lying wounded on the floor of a corridor and Khan brandishing his two knives.
Crilly didn’t even think twice, nor did other bystanders. He grabbed whatever was to hand – chucking a wooden lectern at him and then spraying Khan with a fire extinguisher – even though it appeared that Khan was wearing a suicide belt.
Two other attendees of the conference ripped the closest ‘weapons’ they could find – a pole and a whale tusk – off the walls of the corridor and chased Khan out of the building.
And all the while Crilly and the others believed that Khan was wearing a live suicide belt.
“I was screaming at him to blow it. I was prepared to lose my life,” says Crilly. In fact as he and the others continued to fight Khan on the street, it was he who shouted at the police to shoot the knifeman.
It turned out that the belt was a fake, but nobody knew it at the time. They just did what they had to do to help others, and they did it instinctively.
Canadian crash land
It reminds me of what happened on Tuesday August 2, 2005, when an Air France airbus, attempting to land at Pearson International Airport in Toronto during a ferocious downpour, overshot the runway and crash-landed.
Notified that most of the people aboard had died, the Canadian governor general began issuing condolences to relatives of the three hundred and nine passengers on board.
Once the smoke and rain had cleared, it became clear that although more than 40 people had sustained injuries, every single passenger had in fact survived.
The plane had crashed near Highway 401, Ontario’s main motorway. Hundreds of passing motorists had pulled over, rushed to the plane, entered inside and begun pulling out the survivors.
Although two of the eight emergency exits had been unsafe and the emergency slides did not work, the strangers smoothly coordinated efforts to get everyone out safely within a few minutes before the plane burst into flames.
Many of the evacuated passengers were picked up by drivers on the highway and driven to the Air France terminal.
Hundreds of strangers interrupted their busy routine and risked their lives rushing into a crashed airplane to help a group of other strangers they would never see again. Many even offered to drive them to the airport when any one of them might have been a terrorist who had deliberately caused the crash. Remember, this was just four years after 9/11.
Many real-life cases like the London Bridge attack and the Air France incident suggest that, when observing someone else in trouble, most people will instinctively come to his or her aid. In many of us the desire to Bond is so strong that we enter a burning plane without thinking.
Disaster brings us together and unearths the hidden community that is always there – it gives us a cogent reminder this holiday season that the things most sacred to us are more than just ‘stuff.’
It’s the people who’ve got your back when the going gets rough. And don’t ever forget: there are so many of them out there, no matter what political party they come from.