Strange Days in Barcelona

People are weird.

Three days ago, a bunch of mindless individuals, mostly kids between the age of 17 and 22, attacked the city of Barcelona. Zealous and driven, it’s obvious their chains were being yanked by some manipulative figure in the shadows, nevertheless, one of them mounted a van onto the pedestrian walkway at La Rambla (not an easy thing) and intentionally ploughed south-west for 500 metres, mowing complete strangers down without any hesitation. I’ve tried to imagine what absence of compassion or empathy it must have taken to cut though human beings like that, cutting them down like chaff and still ploughing on regardless. I genuinely can’t understand the state of the fucked-up mind that could actually do that.

On the day of the attack, my partner and I were in a museum about 50-100 metres from where it actually took placed. We were hurried out by concerned staff who advised us to rush back to our apartment and stay there. On the way, we were passed by a large number of people scuttling past, suitcases click-clacking noisily on the pavement behind them. Many of the hotels near La Rambla had been evacuated and they were rushing to find accommodation.

We were very lucky. Our presence in the museum had shielded us completely from the event so when we emerged about an hour later we’d already missed all the panic, the terrified survivors, the wounded and the traumatised. By the time we’d headed back into the alleyways of the Old Quarter, it was eerily subdued. People were clustered in tight groups around televisions and radios and no-one really knew what was going on. Overhead a pair of helicopters droned noisily past, the heavy sound of the rotors reverberating through the narrow streets and drowning the sound of other sirens. They didn’t leave until well after dark.

Back at the flat, I sent out a facebook post and a tweet to inform people that we were all right. After a number of severe earthquakes in New Zealand, we know not to use phones after a disaster or an emergency as the system quickly becomes overloaded and inoperable – a real hindrance for the professionals trying to help. In my tweet, I mistakenly claimed we were 500m from the area where the attack had happened (I was thinking in feet) but I didn’t bother correcting it in case my family and friends saw it and panicked. Despite all this, the phone was ringing hot for hours afterwards.
The next day at the central Placa del Catalunya, people turned out in huge numbers to protest at what had happened. It was weird – people were incredibly angry at the pointless violence, the complete absence of a credible motive for killing innocents that included children- but there was no-one they could direct that anger at, vent their outrage at. Later when ISIS made their announcement that this had all been part of some cunning plan, it was treated with immense scorn and contempt.

Despite the atrocity that had just happened however, the city just seemed to continue on regardless. Over the following days, people were certainly more cautious and glued to social media but the fact that the Catalan police had arrested a number of suspects and killed five others at Cambrils reassured everyone. It also offered at least some sense that justice had been carried out, particularly when it was learned that an even worse attack had probably been averted.

I had heard that a single cop shot four of the five dead suspect terrorists – which makes you wonder about things like ‘justice’ and ‘due process’. I don’t know if it’s actually true or not but I can understand now how violence could cause further violence. If it is true although there’s no way I’d condone such an action, given the ongoing rawness at the atrocity carried out, I’d also truly struggle to condemn it.

It’s the fourth day now since the attack and this morning was the first time I returned to La Rambla, making my way up the route from the sea to Placa del Catalunya. It was early but crowds had already gathered around the different temporary shrines where notes, messages, candles toys and flowers had been arranged. I saw several notes in English, one from someone called Conor saying “Barcelona, Canada stands with you.”

It’s the kind of thing I’d normally find mawkish and saccharine and distressingly helpless but this morning there seemed no doubt to the sincerity behind it and I felt its impact more than anything else I’ve seen since I’ve been here.