Young men are best at dying for empty concepts….

BMJ Published 04 August 2005                Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:359

The more things change, the more they stay the same—cynical old men suckering gullible and vulnerable young men into doing their dirty work for them. You’ve just experienced it in London, I saw it for years in Northern Ireland, and Siegfried Sassoon wrote about it in 1918: “If I were fierce and bald and short of breath, I’d sit with scarlet Majors at the Base, And speed glum heroes up the line to death.”

You’ll get used to it. More visible security, regular searches, frequent false alarms, delays on trains and buses—all these things will gradually soften like music into the background. Life has to go on, the anxiety will fade as you adjust to a different dynamic, you’ll go back to talking about football and the weather, and patients will still want antibiotics for colds and sore throats even as the sirens wail. Humans aren’t genetically designed for absolute tranquillity, and a bit of uncertainty is probably good for us.

Statistically the chances of being involved are slight. During the Troubles about 3000 people were killed, and in that same period the death toll on the roads was over 6000. But the increased threat does make you more alert to small things, a little bit more cautious and thoughtful.

I remember once driving to a house call when I noticed a cardboard box at the side of the road. I stopped the car and sat for a while, pondering. It was just a cardboard box on a small country road, almost certainly just a piece of stray litter; no wires, no traditional whiff of cordite, no sound of merry gunfire in the distance, no sign of any “insurgents,” nothing at all suspicious.

I got out of the car at a prudent distance, and looked sternly at the box; I consider myself an alpha male. It looked back at me, unblinking. Observing the conventions, it exuded a faint air of menace: “You’re alive, you’re dead,” it seemed to be saying, “it really doesn’t matter to me.” For a long moment neither of us moved.

Then I turned around and made a detour which cost me 10 miles; fortune may favour the brave, but the devil hates a coward.


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