Why Europe is the true land of the free
The US remains gripped by fear and misinformation, writes Bryony Gordon
Published 27/03/2016 | 02:30
Last Monday night I arrived in New York and was relieved to find that, unlike the last time I came, a portion of the city wasn't in lock-down because of a shooting at a major transport hub.
Four months ago, I queued for an hour in the customs hall at JFK as the televisions announced that a gunman was on the loose after shooting dead one person and wounding two others at Penn Station, in the midtown of the city. "Oh dear," I said to the cab driver once I had cleared the nightmare that is US immigration. "It's no biggie," he said, as if this kind of thing happened every day, which, this being America, it did.
This time I was confronted with some security personnel cradling firearms as if they were babies. The exchange with the immigration officer went something like this:
Officer: "When are you planning to leave?"
Me (mumbling): "Thanks for the welcome."
Officer (shouting): "MA'AM, I REPEAT, WHEN ARE YOU PLANNING TO LEAVE?"
Me (feebly): "Wednesday, sir."
I got to my hotel, collapsed into bed and popped in some earplugs to try to muffle the sounds of emergency service vehicles that fill the Manhattan night. Then I woke up and switched on the television where the terrible events in Brussels were unfolding from a uniquely American viewpoint.
"We're keeping an eye on the events in Brussels," said the glamorous anchorwoman. "And we're keeping an eye on New York to see what the tragedy means for us here," continued her male side-kick. The army had arrived at JFK. On TV, they were discussing how dangerous Europe was. Donald Trump had tweeted that Brussels was a hell-hole from a "different world" and that America "must be vigilant and smart"! Then the anchors went to an item about how to combat an increase in slashings in the city - 916 so far this year, an 18 per cent spike on the year before.
That night I met some friends for a drink at a rooftop bar downtown. They told me more about these slashings. One theory is that they are gang-related, some horrific initiation ceremony in which young men vie to inflict as many stitches on a victim as possible.
Apparently "only" 23 of the 916 slashings had been random - the rest were related to ongoing disputes or adverse encounters - but as my friends pointed out, had 23 people been slashed at random with box-cutters and razors in London there would be an outcry.
"Look at the Freedom Tower," said one friend. We turned to see it lit up in solidarity with the people of Belgium - only in the colours of the French flag. "I suppose it's the thought that counts," my friend continued.
While I was there, the US State Department warned Americans travelling in Europe - yes, the whole of Europe - to "exercise vigilance" when "in public places or using mass transportation".
I wondered about the chances of being involved in a mass shooting in America (25 this month alone, according to the Mass Shooting Tracker, bringing the total to 79 in 2016; the same website estimates there were 371 in 2015).
The chances are extremely small, I am guessing, given that millions of people travel to America without being shot or having their face slashed - just as millions of people travel to Europe without being killed by murderers from Isil.
Still, watching the news, I felt scared. I thought that if I was American, if I didn't have the benefit of a family in Europe and a (thankfully safe) cousin in Brussels, I might think twice about ever visiting the continent.
I might imagine, reading the tweets of Donald Trump, that it had been turned into some sort of medieval dystopia where radicalised Muslims ruled supreme and the rest of us cowered in fear of being stoned or beheaded. Exposed to his rhetoric, I might even decide to vote for him.
On Wednesday night, I got to the airport feeling anxious and desperate to be home with my daughter and husband. I smiled at the airport security, who responded once more with snarls - and I understood, because what country wouldn't be paralysed by the horrors seen that bright September day in 2001?
But back home, I realised that I would much rather live in Europe, for all of its flaws and all of its recent tragedies. Because it is not ruled by fear. It does not allow itself to be defined by terror. If it is characterised by anything, then it is compassion - compassion for the people of Syria who face the horrors of Isil every hour of every day.
The Belgian terrorists are not us and they are not all around us. As long as we remember that, we will always be the true land of the free.