First came the ambulances. Just two or three initially, speeding into the Plaça Catalunya where I sat in a small corner restaurant. Two minutes later, the cop cars arrived. Sirens wailing, lights flashing, they attracted the attention of bystanders. I brushed it off immediately; perhaps an elderly person had a heart attack or a Vespa collided with a car. I knew from personal experience that everyone responds to a 911 call.
Large blue vans reading Mossos d’Esquadros rushed in. “That’s like the Spanish SWAT team,” my dad said. The customers in the restaurant looked on edge, but I didn’t think much of it. There are always armed officers zipping around New York, and the ones I glimpsed through the windows looked no different.
It was just a few moments later that it happened. Dozens of people sprinting across the sidewalk on all sides of the plaza. They looked back in the direction they came fearfully, many screaming. A balding man in a blue shirt gripped his backpack straps tight as he ran. In the moment, it felt like a movie; this could not possibly be happening, I could not possibly be seeing a terrorist attack.
The plates shook as customers ran to the back of the restaurant. Children were crying and even some adults had tears in their eyes. Yet as we found spots to hide, the flow of people outside just stopped. Suddenly, the sidewalk was empty and I expected that what they were running from would be next. “Wait here,” my dad said, and he left. I didn’t have time to stop him, and I didn’t have enough confidence in him not to start crying myself.
I was crouched behind the host’s podium, almost completely exposed. My mind was racing with questions and scenarios. Was it a bomb? Were there gunshots? How did I not hear? Was it just one terrorist or several? What if they came in here? Would I die?
The fear was in not knowing.
As I searched the sidewalk outside for my father, a family huddled near me thrust my head down into their circle. I could not help but think that, at the front, we would be the first to go. I peeled away to hide downstairs with my mom until, just thirty seconds later, my dad returned telling us to come with him. He had seen the blue vans just two blocks away barricading the intersection to Las Ramblas, the busiest street in all of Barcelona, where it met the Plaça Catalunya. Whatever threat existed was contained, but that did not put an end to my confusion.
An hour later, I would learn that a van had intentionally swerved into Las Ramblas at that intersection. From there, it zigzagged through the street at 60 miles per hour in order to kill as many people as possible. By the time it crashed into a kiosk, the terrorists had fled, leaving thirteen (now fourteen) people dead and close to a hundred injured. The crowd sprinting past was the tidal wave off Las Ramblas. Flanked by busy roads on either side, many there were forced to flee to the plaza. My experience was minuscule in comparison to their’s – after all, I was never really in danger.
Just two blocks away from me, at that fateful intersection, an old friend from elementary school was at a smoothie cart when the van turned onto Las Ramblas. I had run into her at the airport, and I was surprised when she turned up again on my flight. She was lucky; after jumping into a store nearby, she ran three miles to safety.
It seems that each month, we around the world hear of yet another terror attack. Given a sigh or a prayer, we change the channel, scroll to the next article, switch the topic in conversation.
The sheer frequency of these attacks coupled with the fact that they are often far, far away from us has rendered us incapable of fully comprehending each attack for what it is: a tragedy.
We are numb to human suffering, and while Western countries will at least get a hashtag, the East will be papered over as unfortunate consequences of war. Terror, in whatever shape or color it comes in, must be fought by a unified front. Civilians have just as great a duty to their country as do leaders to recognize and denounce terror. It seems so simple yet it is so great a task. You should not have to watch an entire city be upended by the power of a foot on a gas pedal to realize this.