Up to now I have only ever felt like a bemused observer and sceptic, but yesterday the “War on Terror” finally caught up with me. I was standing in Kings Cross station in front of the giant information board with the orange writing eating an apple (braeburn; misshapen; disappointingly spongy) waiting for a train. I finished my apple and, without consciously deciding to do so, started to drift around the station: towards the platforms, over towards Marks and Spencer, back towards the orange writing where my walking subsided leaving me standing still again, this time slightly disoriented.
Something was missing. An everyday, little thought of part of the world somehow wasn’t in its place. There were no bins. Not one. Not a wheelie, or a flip-top, or a peddle-press, or an ashtray top, or an anti-arson wire-mesh; not even the most primordial bucket kind. Kings Cross station has two Upper Crusts (that I know of) and another eatery selling indistinguishable sandwiches from underneath a blue sign that vulgarly slurs French at the passer-by, but no bins.
It hadn’t occurred to me for a second when I peeled the little blue sticker off my apple and twisted the stork out that I might be about to eat myself into a sticky-fingered impasse, but the moment I became conscious that there were no bins I knew the reason why. The bins had been taken away because of terrorism. Bins are potential fifth-columnists for terrorism, so the government have taken them all away. That’s right: to combat the threat of jihadist terrorism the British government has invaded Afghanistan, introduced legislation to allow 42-day pre-charge detention and removed all of the bins from Kings Cross train station.
In any case, standing in front of the giant information board, having finished my apple, core in hand – I suddenly became very angry. This was ridiculous. I felt ridiculous standing there gratuitously holding an apple core between my increasingly sticky thumb and index finger without any obvious course of action. What is the world coming to if the great English tradition of itinerant apple-eating has come under threat like this? What does it mean when one can no longer idle along, nonchalantly eating an apple, relying mindlessly on the opportune ubiquitousness of bins?
The whole episode was a sort of phenomenological epiphany for me. I realised that the “War on Terror” has started to structure even the most basic and trivial aspects of our life. Bins are equipment in the Heideggarian sense. Under normal circumstances they become transparent to us, we don’t even think about them. We eat an apple and without even thinking about it we throw the apple core into the to-throw-into. When things are going well we’re not even consciously aware of what we’re doing. The way we use bins is just part of the background knowledge accumulated across our lives which allows us to get around in the world. But in forcing the authorities to take away the bins, the terrorists have broken in on our world and rendered it unfamiliar. They have brought about a breakdown of some of the equipment of everyday life, which after their sabotage is no longer ready-to-hand. As a result of their threats, the unproblematical suddenly shows up as problematical and we find ourselves pulled out of that comfortable, mindless way of operating. We are forced to think about what we are doing, to take some conscious action to circumvent these minor inconveniences; but also to reflect on the pervasiveness and banality of the terrorists’ impact.
That moment of coming-to-oneself, when instead of dealing thoughtlessly with the world one realises that something is amiss, is thoroughly disquieting. The most discomposing aspect of it was the realisation of the insane incongruity of cause and effect. The juxtaposition of the threat of terrorist mass murder and the throwing away of my apple core is absurd, but nevertheless it has come to pass that the apocalyptic and the banal are causally connected. The terrible seriousness of the one and the mild comedy of the other cannot exist together except discordantly. What could a thwarted bin seeker have to do with fanatics who have committed their lives to the murder of innocent Westerners? But they do have something to do with each other. And that is abominable and disturbing. The contamination of my everyday phenomenological world by the terrorist threat feels like a terrible invasion, an appalling violation. It seems to illustrate concretely a butterfly effect, a hyper-interdependence that I have always been sceptical about. I still can’t get over the uncanniness of the causal relationship between 9/11 and the nuisance that I was faced with: the Twin towers and an apple core. A world that is so much an unravellable whole seems monstrous and inescapable.
This showed up for me entirely contingently, but one has to wonder what changes have failed to show up just as contingently. If terrorism is capable of effecting things at this micro-level, just what is it doing at the macro-level? What unnoticed changes in our mindset and values and ways of seeing the world have the terrorists induced?