Opinion: Innocence and the realities of terrorism

Too close for comfort: The events in Manchester bring home the fear we all hold for our loved ones while travelling - and at home.
Too close for comfort: The events in Manchester bring home the fear we all hold for our loved ones while travelling - and at home.

My family just arrived back from England, Ireland and Paris, four weeks of family visits and road trips, prompted by a cousin's Irish wedding. Our blithe family trip also became a month of proximity to terrorism.

We were two hours' drive from Manchester when the Ariana Grande concert attack occurred, and a week from a planned visit to the city. It felt close and shocking though we were very definitely not there. Rather, we were with my parents-in-law, who have a television in their kitchen.

The coverage was blanket, the talk was of dead kids and everyday heroes. I asked them to turn it off when my daughters, 12 and 13, came downstairs.

I chatted at breakfast when they emerged and sketched plans for the day. I wanted to protect them, I didn't want to talk about it, I didn't want it to have happened, I wanted it to go away. The 12-year-old's face was heavy. 

"Did you hear what happened at the Ariana Grande concert?" she asked, probing and defiant, having already seen it on the Snapchat news, Instagram, a scrolling, roiling parade of hashtags, laments and rumour. I felt like as if I'd failed her – shouldn't I be moderating the big, bad world for her, making it safe? But everything comes in these days and you never know what the next casual scroll is going to lob at your awareness. It's hard enough as an adult and I lurch between wanting to know everything and making sure I know nothing, trying to stay optimistic while feeling awfully powerless.

We went to Manchester and the 12-year-old outlined her plan to go to the memorial fundraising concert that Ariana Grande was putting on with fellow pop idols Justin Bieber and Katy Perry. That was never going to happen: the show was sold out and we were leaving town two days before. And I didn't want her to, though I didn't say that.

And then we got to London. I woke up on our second morning, saw the sun through the shutters, put my running shoes on and checked my phone. The screen bristled with messages from friends and family checking that we were okay. We were. I caught up on the news about another terror attack, just a couple of miles from where we'd had a lovely, peaceful dinner the night before.

What do you do? I didn't trust the sunny day any more. I didn't think I could go for a jog. I didn't want to not be there when my husband and children woke up. 

As a parent, the baseline is safety and through all of my mothering I've never really had to think about it. I have never worried about the bedrock safety of going out and coming home alive. 

Terrorism is a tear in the normal rules and it rips normal families asunder. I keep imagining myself on London Bridge, placing myself between a ramming car and my child. I know I would do that and I know it wouldn't help. How strong am I? What would I do if a knife came towards me? How would I stay brave?

We went to Paris next and the kids took selfies with the Eiffel Tower. We pointed out landmarks: Montmartre, the Pompidou, Notre Dame. An hour later, there was a terrorist stabbing at Notre Dame and I saw footage of tourists running from the church. Again, that could have been us. But it wasn't. And it wasn't likely to be.

I love and embrace a connected world, but I sometimes wish I could retreat to a bubble and seal it shut. I'm not sure how to balance experience and ebbing innocence – a screen ban seems as feasible as world peace – but today I'm just glad to be home.

Dani Valent is a Fairfax contributor