It seems that the world is a safer place when I stay at home. I think that on nearly every occasion in the last few years I’ve come back from holiday to discover that some kind of appalling disaster has befallen innocent victims in some part of the world. In 2004 it was the Asian tsunami. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina greeted my return. In 2006, a Russian airliner came down in the Ukraine as I relaxed in my Limousin garden. 2007 saw Greece go up in flames despite France’s decision to remain doggedly wet. In 2008, Madrid hosted the seemingly obligatory plane disaster. The Air France plane crash in Brazil in 2009 jumped the gun a bit, happening in June before I’d managed to leave home. But last year the Chilean mine disaster began during my two weeks off, although it of course eventually had a miraculously happy ending. This year I come back to find that a “lunatic” has wreaked havoc in Norway.
But coincidences are always in the eye of the beholder, and in truth my holidaying habits have nothing to do with the world’s precarious state. In all the years I’ve cited, there were other terrible events that did not occur whilst I was enjoying myself. The human animal loves to make connections where none exist; a fatal flaw in our perceptive apparatus that has left us constantly at the mercy of charlatans throughout the ages. The seemingly inexorable tendency for terrible things to happen whilst I’m away does however have one useful by-product: it makes me more aware of them. The very fact that I can recall all these things is testament to that.
On the other hand, this drive to make false connections, to create some kind of link between random events, to strain after explanation, to fit the world into our convenient and pre-determined sense of causality, is a very dangerous thing indeed. In this recent case of the Norwegian massacre, it’s instructive to note how immediate – and how utterly wrong – was the media’s assumption that this was another example of Islamic extremism. Not only that, but once it became clear that this was not an act of Islamic terrorism, the word terrorism itself sank without trace. Terrorism, it seems, is a reserved occupation. Anders Behring Breivik is not a terrorist, no matter that he terrorised so many: he is mad.
And so, even though these connections and disconnections are not as crass, nor as self-evidently false, as that I began by making between disasters and my holidays, they still serve to mislead us, and to confirm our existing prejudices and sense of what fits with what, nonetheless. I don’t believe that the world would be safer if I stayed at home. But then I don’t believe that only Islamists are terrorists, either. Nor, indeed, that only lone attackers are mad.