What does it feel like to be caught up in a dramatic event even when it later turns out not to have been an “event”? My daughter was caught up in the Oxford Street Attack panic in London on Friday. She was shopping in Selfridges in the heaving Black Friday sales crowds. Suddenly, she heard loud bangs, followed by cries to “get down”. She and everybody else did so, crouching on the floor. Next, people were instructed to leave the shop.
There was a stampede – shoppers dropping bags and running away. In the scramble, my daughter had her phone knocked out of her hand. Outside, there was another panicked stampede, this time coming towards them, some people crying and screaming as they were evicted from shops and nearby tube stations, surrounded by police officers…
Now, of course, we know that there wasn’t a terrorist attack. It’s believed that the incident probably began with an “altercation” at a tube station and that all the panic, chaos, speculation and misinformation rippled out from there. The Daily Mail has been criticised for retweeting a 10-day-old fake news tweet about a lorry driving along the pavement in Oxford Street. It’s accepted that social media also played its part in spreading fake news and causing hysteria.
Singer Olly Murs, locked inside Selfridges at the time of the non-incident, was later criticised and ridiculed for tweeting in real time to his millions of followers. (In his defence, Murs reported being told by other people in the shop about the same loud bangs that my daughter heard.)
It wasn’t too long before it became clear that the main thrust of the story was that there was no story. And thank God for that. No one wanted it to be a terrorist attack. Everyone was relieved that the situation was quickly assessed and that the panic just as swiftly subsided.
The police should be commended for their fast response, as should the public for recovering so quickly, most of them calmly making their way home, some people even continuing to shop in Oxford Street.
Obviously, paranoid bursts of uncorroborated stories about terrorist activity that turn out to be fake are unhelpful, even dangerous. It’s as though terrorists don’t even have to do anything anymore – the mere possibility is enough to cause paranoia and mass panic. However, while it’s one thing to condemn irresponsible reporting, or hysteria on social media, perhaps there could be a bit more generosity shown towards the people who were caught up in it.
After all, hindsight is a wonderful thing. This isn’t just about my daughter, I’m sure that all those other people in Oxford Street would have been delighted to have known for sure, at the time, that there was no terrorist attack. But they didn’t know. All they knew was that it was one of the biggest shopping days of the year, in a country that is a terrorist target, in a city that is a terrorist target, in a famous shopping area. Add loud bangs, shouts of “get down!”, stampedes, police… What are people supposed to think: “Don’t worry, it’s probably something to do with panto season”?
Not likely, when we’re living through an era where everyone has received the same terrorism memo. If something looks like a terrorist attack, sounds like a terrorist attack and everyone around you behaves as if it is a terrorist attack, then the odds are that it could be a terrorist attack, right? Well, no, in this case, wrong, wildly wrong, for which we are all eternally grateful. However, for the people who were there, this “nothing happened” spiel isn’t quite true, is it? For a brief, scary moment, they believed that they were caught up in something serious. For them at least, something happened.- The Guardian