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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Terror


My wife, Nicola, and I were in a car accident in Africa that should have caused feelings of terror.  We were passengers in a “taxi” with eight or nine other people on our way from Nairobi to Tanzania when our driver spotted a Maasai man herding his cattle across the road.  After pumping his useless brakes a few times, he attempted to drive around the herd.  He swerved into the dirt beside the road smashing into the head of the lead cow.  Then, he attempted to swerve back on the road.   After a whoop from the husky woman seated beside Nicola, the driver attempted to return the car back to the tarmac.  The tires gripped the edge and we went careening off to the far side of the road.  The driver turned back.  The car rocked and then shot back in the direction we’d come.  He tried one more time to straighten it out before the vehicle started to roll and roll and roll.  Not once did the idiot think to take his foot off the gas. 
One of the few pics taken of the Savannah before the Accident
I watched the proceedings from the backseat with the same sense of disappointment I’ve felt when the protagonist dies at the end of a movie and I remember thinking, "I guess this is it."  Nicola’s vantage was that of the overhead camera with a third person perspective of the event. 

It wasn’t the end.  My first memory upon emerging from the crash was disbelief.  Not only was I still alive, but I was uninjured.  To be sure, I jumped up and down figuring that any cracked or broken bones would scream their objection.  I was elated.  Not once had I considered that Nicola would not be experiencing the same.  In point of fact, he left foot was hanging from her leg.  Her back hurt and she had difficulty breathing.

The Oxford dictionary defines terror as “extreme fear.”  It originates from the the 15th century Old French word terreur which in turn was derived from the Latin word terrorem meaning “fear so great as to overwhelm the mind.”  My question is when does fear become terror? 

The car accident in Africa filled me with fear but I wasn’t overwhelmed.  Taxis can cause me to feel terror, particularly those in the developing world driven by men at a speed where they’re only marginally in control.  At those moments, I want to scream at them.  But I don’t.  Just like in Africa, we’re usually in the car with other passengers.  I did offer a Cambodian driver ten American dollars if he’d slow down.  I don’t believe Nicola experiences the same kind of terror.

The first major terrorist attack on North American soil was followed by deep cuts in airfares.  In June of that year, I spotted tickets from Edmonton to Paris for $550.  That was our first European trip as a family.  Fear of flying was overwhelmed by my desire for travel. That wasn’t the case with many others.  Gerd Gigerenzer, a German academic specializing in risk, estimated that an extra 1,595 Americans died in car accidents in the year after the attacks of September 11th – indirect victims of the tragedy.  Sometimes, we have to override our fears with reason.  In 2008, there were 5 million automobile accidents in the U.S. compared with 20 plane accidents with only 5 involving serious injuries.

Nicola all hooked up after the accident
But, terror and terrorism aren’t defined by numbers.  They’re a feeling.  What it’s like to be in a crowd after the detonation of a bomb and then be almost sure there will be another and maybe another after that, I hope to never understand.  I feel almost dirty exploring the topic having so little understanding of what it must be like.  As when Nicola was lying on the African Savannah and I was desperately appealing to a bunch of rubber neckers for assistance in transporting her to the nearest hospital.  That was terror, not the accident.  I pleaded with a bunch of white people in tourist van after tourist van to help transport Nicola to the nearest hospital.  Who knew that help would come in the form of a black Kenyan micro-biologist who’d studied at the University of British Columbia driving a covered flatbed truck.  With the help of many African bystanders, we transferred Nicola onto and door and into the truck.  Once at the local hospital, he had me contacted the Canadian High Commission.  These two acts may have saved Nicola’s life and her future mobility.  The Canadian High Commission in Nairobi arranged for AMREF, the flying doctors to transport her to Nairobi.  An orthopaedic surgeon reset Nicola's foot. He would proceed with surgery on her back when the hole in her lung had healed.  When the doctor from the High Commission heard this, he arranged for a consultation with another specialist.  That specialist's prognosis was that the black spot next to Nicola's spine as revealed on the x-ray was a blood clot and not a bone chip.  The doctor from the High Commission then convinced our travel insurance company that Nicola didn’t need an operation Nairobi and should be transported by stretcher back to Edmonton.  

In times of crises, the temptation is to break down and leave actions and decisions to other people.  On the savannah, I was tempted to freak out at people in one of the tourist vans.  Maybe that would have forced them to act.  But I believe my patience was rewarded.  Now I feel the same about this latest scourge of terrorism inflicted on Europe by the Islamic State.  The powers that be shouldn’t panic and resort to carpet bombing or rejecting all refugee claims because they come from a person of Muslim faith.  Who knows where or what or with whom we may find answers to this crises?  Our salvation came in the form of an African micro-biologist driving a flatbed truck.