Riding the bus of life

No one ever said life would be easy. So if you haven't been horribly murdered on a bus I say you should feel lucky. Of course such incidents, narrowly defined, are extremely uncommon. And so far we haven't had any annoying lectures about the human tendency to overestimate rare risks, although I wonder how many people have slept on buses in the past week.

We've also had relatively little annoyingly off-key political whining. One MP called it a "wake-up call" about mass transit security while another rejected armed guards on buses but called, in a most unfortunate phrase, for security experts "to put their heads together." But buses are actually surprisingly safe, and if you really want to improve security further you could simply arm the drivers.

Probably nothing could have saved Tim McLean, who seems to have been immediately mortally wounded. But the attacker was only kept at bay by the driver, a passenger and a passing truck driver waving a hammer and a crowbar, after the driver managed to disable the bus from outside to prevent it being stolen and used for worse mayhem. Whereas in Israel, where normal law-abiding folks are frequently armed, anyone who starts to run amok is promptly shot. That's my public policy lesson here.

My broader lesson is that nothing can fundamentally change the fragility of life. Bus beheadings may be rare, even unprecedented, but malevolence, illness or simple bad luck can strike any of us at any time. This spring an Ottawa grandmother was crushed in a bus shelter when an elderly driver lost control of her vehicle. Politicians might call it a wake-up call for sturdier bus shelters, and I might suggest greater willingness to revoke the licences of unfit drivers. But the key point is that when the American newspaperman Damon Runyon said all life is six to five against he was wildly optimistic.

What amazes me about psychopathic violence, like suicide terrorism, is not how common but how rare it is. We trust our fellows implicitly not suddenly to stab us or run us over as we walk down the street pondering where to eat lunch, and almost invariably they don't. Even the strangest-looking ones, or those with the weirdest internal monologues going on, do not so much as punch us in the nose. Yet they might, and what really can you do to prepare yourself?

Many years ago, hitchhiking across Canada with one dollar in my pocket, I got a lift from a very unpleasant B.C. truck driver who at one point genially observed that I seemed small and cute to be travelling alone. I genially showed him the metal bar I carried for protection and shortly afterward he genially let me out. Was he Clifford Olson? I don't know. I don't remember what he looked like.

I'll never know how lucky I was that night. But I've certainly slept on buses, and if you wake up with a knife jammed through your windpipe it's hard to rebound -- as it is if you die of malaria at three weeks old, get raped and massacred by marauding Huns, are eaten by crocodiles or suffer any number of other horrible fates that have overtaken huge numbers of people and, despite vapid political rhetoric, will undoubtedly afflict many more.

Like being sent to a concentration camp. I happened to be rereading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich last week, shortly before Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, having survived war with the Nazis, Stalinist labour camps and persecution by Stalin's successors, expired peacefully at 89. And it filled me with gratitude at all the horrible things that never happened to me. It reminded me of Ben Stein's account of floating in his heated Hollywood pool looking up at the same stars visible from Auschwitz and wondering "Why me?"

The question cannot be answered directly. But it also cannot be evaded because you, and I, were incredibly lucky. Yes, you. Even if you are now mortally ill, suffer lingering trauma, or get murdered tomorrow, if you have lived long enough to read this article, and can read it, you are ahead of a great number of people. Would you switch places with that seven-year-old Toronto girl brutally beaten to death by, allegedly, her government-sanctioned caregiver?

Exactly. So the real question is not "Why me?" but "What am I going to do with my luck?" Shall I, who was never once randomly slaughtered on a bus in my youth, go about complaining that my back hurts from digging fence post holes? Or shall I attempt to conduct myself in such a way that people do not generally curse immediately after speaking with me on the telephone? Shall I take some of my luck and share it, or hoard it and whine that there should have been more?

We are all on the bus. If you were lucky enough not to get death as a seatmate yet, try to make something worthwhile of the trip.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

Columns, CrimeJohn Robson