So Jane Austen isn’t exactly my cup of tea, which I suppose is my loss.  She occupies a prominent place on that list of ‘literary classics‘ that I really should get around to reading – or at least watching some of the better film adaptations – and that day will likely continue to be postponed.  But even I, knuckle-dragger that I am, still know that famous opening line from Pride & Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.[1]

It’s a nice, succinct opening sentence.  It sets the tone and theme of the novel beautifully, and featuring that sly wit that will characterize the upcoming story.

Somehow I doubt that Douglas Bland is a Jane Austen fan.  In fact his style of writing seems the exact antithesis of Austen’s keen insight into human nature.  Despite this, I can’t help but think he was unintentionally channelling P&P when he wrote this opening to the next section:

It is a rule that contented citizens, comfortable in the peace and prosperity of civil society, react to sudden violence just as pastured cattle react to the sudden appearance of a wolf in the distance.

Naturally, it’s a bloated run-on sentence.  There is so much to unpack here.

I don’t expect that Bland was ever an Austen fan, but I would expect that he’d follow the news when it came to infamous terror attacks.  So let’s talk about London, 7 July 2005.

London Subway Bombing-1

This is a picture from the July 7 2005 bombing of the London Underground.  A group of British youths, radicalized by extreme Muslim clerics and al-Qaeda based rhetoric carried three bombs onto trains in the London subway system and blew themselves up.  A fourth bomber attacked a city bus in a similar fashion later an hour later.[2]  Fifty two people (not counting the four bombers themselves) were killed, and over seven hundred more were wounded.

The three subway cars were underground when the bombs exploded. One was on a circle line that passed several other tracks, leading to other trains getting damaged, while the other two were in single-line tunnels.  In all three cases the survivors fled to safety in multiple directions, many having to walk several hundred metres to reach a station. To add to the confusion, trains were stopped as a safety precaution, stranding hundreds of more passengers who then had to walk out along the tracks as well.[3]

The photo above became famous, although technically there shouldn’t be anything novel about it.  The man on the right is Paul Dadge, a random commuter who was making his way to work when he heard about the bombings and saw survivors being treated at an casualty collection point.  The woman behind the mask is Davinia Turrell (now Davinia Douglass) a commuter on one of the trains who suffered burns to her face from the explosion.

The original reporting claimed that Paul Dadge was a completely untrained bystander.  In fact he’d worked as a volunteer firefighter some years earlier, but he was a regular white-collar office worker that day, without current training and lacking any equipment or preparation.  The main thing was that he had no formal role to play in responding to the attacks, but stepped up anyway.

Davinia Turrell was badly distraught.  Although her injuries weren’t immediately life threatening, it’s common for head and face injuries to cause the onset of shock. The brain naturally recoils in horror over the notion that your face may have been destroyed.  Panic is normal under the best of circumstances, and coupled with the mechanism of injury (a fucking bomb) shock is to be expected as well.  So while she wasn’t a high priority casualty, she needed help to keep from becoming one.

Paul Dadge could have just kept going.  As a civilian and a bystander, he had no obligation to help anyone, and the realization that a bomb had just gone off would have given him the perfect excuse to stay away.[4] Instead he approached the casualty collection point, identified himself and offered to help.

None of the on-site treatment performed on Ms Turrell was complicated.  A sterile, moist dressing was applied to her burned face, and when she became anxious over being blinded (this is also normal) then eye, nose and mouth-holes were cut into the material.[5]  This was not a purpose-made mask.  Just sterile gauze and water.  In the absence of proper first aid supplies a similar effect could have been achieved with clean paper towels and ordinary tap water from a bathroom.

I’m bringing up this example as a real-life counter-point to this next section of Uprising.  It is now Friday morning and the violence that was hinted at in the first pages only to be buried for an interminable two hundred pages is upon us.  The war is upon us, and Montreal will burn.

And this is how Bland kicks it off:

It is a rule that contented citizens, comfortable in the peace and prosperity of civil society, react to sudden violence just as pastured cattle react to the sudden appearance of a wolf in the distance. They stop and stare, curious, gawking, heads turning and twisting for a better view of the odd interruption to their routine. The rushing sirens, the crunch of fenders, the loud shriek of some crazed, street person, they’re all just grist for early morning office gossip. The disturbance over, commuter strolls on. The wolf gone, the herd returns to the pasture grass.

At 0715, a small bomb in the mailbox outside the Peel Street subway exit in downtown Montreal exploded, breaking windows, setting an illegally parked car on fire, filling the windless street with a towering plume of black smoke. The unlucky few to be too near the blast sat on the sidewalk, dazed. Some were bleeding. Others, across the street and in the next block, stopped to gape. A few came to help the injured. What the hell was that? Was that a bomb?

“It is a rule that contented citizens…”  I’d like to see a citation on that rule, Bland.

I’ve already mentioned, I truly despise the term “sheeple.”  It’s not only an ugly slur but it’s not particularly realistic.  Humans don’t act like pastured cattle.  Cattle acts like cattle.  Humans act like people.

Sure, most people will disregard “the rushing sirens, the crunch of fenders, the loud shriek of some crazed, street person,” that’s usually because these things aren’t big deals.  I’ve personally walked or driven on by from all three of these situations on occasion, while on other occasions I’ve stopped to intervene.  In the former case, this was because the situation was already under control.  In the latter, because it was happening right then and there and people needed help.  In this I don’t think I’m especially remarkable as a Canadian citizen.

What’s more, Bland is forgetting his own setting.  This isn’t a random bomb going off in an otherwise peaceful Montreal.  This is coming at the end of the ‘Summer of Rage’ and the Railway Massacre, with the last week having seem protests, road blockages, blackouts and attacks on Canadian Forces Bases.  This shouldn’t be a case of “A bomb?  Really?” as much as “Oh god, they’re bombing us now!”

I can’t say for sure that this would incline Canadians to run and help or to run away.  But this dull, bovine curiosity?  No.  I don’t think so.

__________________

[1] Full disclosure, I mostly knew how the line went, but I had to check with Liz for proper wording and to confirm it was Pride & Prejudice and not one of Austen’s other works.

[2] An especially horrific aspect of the attack was the background of the attackers.  Two were married with children, another still lived with his parents and worked at their business, while the fourth lived with his married brother.

[3] The appearance of survivors at multiple stations, as well as damage to multiple trains led to early false reports of six to seven explosions, rather than three.

[4] It is actually a good idea to minimize the number of people responding to a bomb attack, and to evacuate the casualties as soon a practical.  There is always the possibility of a follow on attack, or some kind of secondary fire or explosion from the original bomb.

[5] This is actually a very normal response when a person has their face bandaged.  We depend on our eyesight more than any other sense in order to survive, so losing your sight is naturally going to cause panic.  This is why, even if it leaves wounds uncovered, it’s usually a good idea to leave at least one eye uncovered as a comfort to the casualty.

4 thoughts on “59-The Fighting Begins (1) – Universally acknowledged?

  1. Bland is forgetting that he set this essentially after a summer like the won we just went through – with mass protests in multiple cities. People would already be tense – the “sudden onset of violence” has already happened and now the herd would be come together into a tighter and more solid mass. They’d “know the wolf is out there”. While the reported activities of the “Summer of Violence” don’t seem to have risen to the levels seen at the protests this last summer, the author should not be trying to assert that the wider population is completely unaware of the undercurrent and the potential for it to become far more serious than it was.
    This is sloppy writing.

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  2. You have started to watch some of Austen’s better adaptations, namely the 1995 Persuasion (best adaptation of that novel, which is also my favourite of her novels). Never you fear, you will end up watching it again.

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  3. I totally agree with you on the point of “people are not cattle”.

    The idea that people react selfishly or ignorant in the event of a sudden catastrophe used to be popular in the social sciences and psychology. But when scientists started to do field research on these hypotheses and began to look into how people really react to such situations (mainly documenting the reactions to natural disasters like earthquakes), they were amazed that people regularly did the OPPOSITE. Not just some “heroes”, but “contented citizens, comfortable in the peace and prosperity of civil society“ as Bland would describe them, went to great length to support those in need. I am no psychologist and am therefore unable to explain why people do this, but I would suspect that a) people like people and the notion that you have to help those in need is fundamental in all cultures of the world and b) mirror neurons, cells in the human brain that, greatly simplified, mirror the emotions we see in others and let us feel them too, albeit somewhat muted, are a powerful thing.

    I can recommend the NYT-Times “The Daily”-Podcast covering the Great Alaska Earthquake for an example of this type of human behavior (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/22/podcasts/the-daily/this-is-chance-alaska-earthquake.html).

    TL;DR: If you have to compare humans with bovines, humans faced with a disaster tend to react like African buffalos. Look them up. They kill lions to protect each other.

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