How you view terrorist activity is sometimes a matter of proximity

Bahnhof Bern: Services in the neighbourhood of 150,000 passengers a day, centered in a national capital. Yup, this could be a terrorist target.

BERN, SWITZERLAND It sounded like a gun blast at first or a tire-burst. A big one. Then a column of black-grey smoke rose above the passenger train at the Bern train station. The crowd on the platform started and lurched instinctively away from the blast, but no one ran.

The explosion appeared to come from the train the second-track over from the train we had just exited and as is always the case with deciding what to do in an environment where we don’t speak the local language, we watched the crowd to see their reaction.

BBC image of 2004 bombing at Madrid's Atocha train station.

The escalator to an overhead walkway was jammed with people, who all turned to survey the explosion site. On the walkway, people stood and pointed, but no one appeared to panic.

Hmmm, column of black smoke, loud bang – probably nothing wrong. That’s what the crowd reaction told us. We waited for a second explosion, the big one, but it did not come. Thank God.

Bern is Switzerland’s capital city and the train station is massive and densely populated. That makes it a target similar in scale to a London or Japanese subway or Madrid’s Atocha train station. This is what goes through one’s mind when gauging how to react to a loud bang, that and whether searchers will find enough body parts to identify us by DNA and so inform our families of our scattered whereabouts.

Nothing happened afterward, and there was no news of it in the local media, so we can only assume it was some kind of mechanical or electrical gaff, although we didn’t see any mechanics or train staff running toward the site of the blast. The Swiss, they are a calm bunch.

It brought to mind Noam Chomsky and his famous comment in the wake of 9/11 about how Americans should not be so fussed about terrorist attacks, and that the U.S. is big enough to take a hit. It seemed he was unaware the U.S. had already taken a hit with a kill-rate of over 3,000, more lives lost in a few hours than the Irish Republican Army had achieved in over three decades. I would have mailed him a copy of the New York Times dated Sept. 12, 2001 if I had his address.

I also wanted to call Mr. Chomsky and suggest he provide the addresses of his parents or children to the terrorists as an acceptable target, to see if he would then think a “hit” not such a big deal.

When living in an American/British/Canadian enclave in Madrid, we were occasionally treated to warnings that Spain’s Basque terrorists (ETA) were going to target the local malls during the Christmas season to send a message to the Americans. Our U.S. friends were somewhat taken aback, having never heard of the Basque or even been aware that their government had anything to do with the Basque complaints. It did not, but that was not of interest to the terrorists. All they were looking for was a victim that would attract big headlines and American victims fit the bill.

That’s the thing with terrorists – they don’t have to worry about re-election and so they can pick their victims at random without having to defend their decisions at the next polling of the electorate. And while the Spanish turned tail and voted to

run for cover when they did suffer their most significant terrorist attack at the Atocha station in 2004, which occurred just before a national election where they turfed the party that supported sending troops to Afghanistan (however token in number), they were not always so accommodating to bullies.

Interestingly, Spain is the one country that had earlier seen a reduction in terrorist activity when the Spaniards wearied of the ETA blasting children and civilians, and the population took to the streets in a protest not against their government for ‘not controlling the terrorist situation,’ but against the terrorists themselves. It was a refreshingly intellectual move on the part of the Spaniards and one we wish more protesters would emulate.

The ETA took note and announced a ceasefire that turned out to be its longest one (which sadly ended when we were there in 1999/2000).

But that drifts from my point that how one views terrorist activity can be governed by proximity. Living in zones that are potential or declared targets imbues the threat with vigour. Living safely in the confines of wherever Chomsky dwells or others who like to blame the victim or the government of the day for threats authored by madmen is another thing.

It is something to think about while gauging whether to run, drop to the ground or just wait for that final fatal bomb to go off while going about what is an otherwise ordinary day.

After-note: We described the Bern train station sound and smoke to our hotel staff friends and they said it was likely a problem in the electrical system. See, nothing wrong. 

Leaving Leipzig

Leipzig Nikolaikirche, the birthplace of the teardown of the Berlin Wall.

Some bad things have happened to my family in Germany, like European airlines extorting money from us in $500 chunks to let our dog or a bike pass through Frankfurt airport, and then my Dad was arrested there for refusing to be an informer for the Soviets. Tough luck, that.

The Berlin "Wall" as it appeared around the time my father tried to cross into West Berlin.

But none of those things occurred on this trip to Leipzig, so hopefully our bad run with Germany is over, which is a good thing because, gosh, their food is much better than expected, and certainly better than what they fed my Dad in that jail.

Leipzig has some sadly decomposed old grand buildings, such as the Astoria, which are almost as interesting to look at as the medieval quarter of town. The city’s northern outskirts are somewhat depressing, stretching out in decayed old industrial zones perhaps still lagging behind due to Communist rule even 30 years after the Germans gave the Soviets the boot. Nevertheless, the city centre outside of the historic quarter is lined with beautiful old architecture.

Leipzig's Astoria hotel, a grand old dam now in serious disrepair.

Less well-known to North Americans (but very well-known to Germans, I imagine) is that Leipzig was a beachhead of sorts during the Second World War. The Brits and Americans were busying themselves with bombing Berlin, when one night the Germans launched a significant concentrated counterattack, punching a big hole in the Allied Forces air fleet. The next night, the Nazis readied their forces for a repeat performance only to have the Allied fighter planes skirt around Berlin and hit Leipzig hard. It was a shock to the Germans, as the Allied Forces had never gone that far into Germany, and in fact, it was thought at the time that such a distance was out-of-range and safe from airstrikes.

Leipzig also housed a concentration camp. As the Allied Forces moved in, 12 Nazi guards torched a bunker with 500 prisoners in it, many of them Russians and Czechs. As some prisoners escaped the flames, they were gunned down by the 12, and those that escaped the bullets died in the electric fencing. Very few lived to relate the story. It’s the sad and shocking history of Germany, and another testament to the fact that there is no army so savage as a defeated one.

Hard to believe the culture that nurtured those 12 guards is the same one that was home to Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, as well as being the birthplace for Schuman. Leipzig still has a vibrant arts community, a university and parks, although I only walked into one park and immediately turned around as it seemed to have a derelict population. Probably nothing wrong, but why take a chance?

Bach statue outside of Thomaskirche where he is buried.

Bach's burial site in the austere Thomaskirche. We hung around outside the building one night, listening to an organ playing. Most of the lights were out, and the church was dark. It was beautiful and haunting.

If I had learned German instead of French, I would know what this inset statuary is all about at Thomaskirche. As it is, I don't know a thing.

Leipzig, a past that is dark and light. An amazing place, and worth the trip.