Ben Lowry: By maintaining holidays as normal people are defying the fanatics

People walk in the historic street of Las Ramblas in Barcelona yesterday, one day after the terrorist attack there. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)
People walk in the historic street of Las Ramblas in Barcelona yesterday, one day after the terrorist attack there. (AP Photo/Santi Palacios)

Three weeks ago I passed through Barcelona on the way to a resort on the coast a few miles southwest of the city.

The resort, Sitges, is one of the best in Europe, and less than an hour from Barcelona airport, which has direct flights to Belfast.

It is a mix of people and atmospheres, with an old part of town that has narrow alleyways that lead up to an ancient church on a promontory, like you find in north Africa coastal cities, in which the alleyways lead out to a mosque. Much of Sitges is also modern.

It isn’t full of any one nationality of people – there are Irish people and Brits and Germans and Dutch and French, as well as a fair number of Americans and Japanese. Most of all the people are Spanish.

Its beaches seem clean and are within a few minutes’ walk of the train station.

It occurred to me when I was there that it would be a target for Islamic fanatics, because much of the resort thrives on a laid back culture that they would resent deeply. The town is popular with gay people but also with families.

Many of the women on the beach go topless, while many more choose not to.

Plenty of alcohol is taken but there is not much drunkenness because it is not a stag or hen do location.

The town is prosperous but not rich or exclusive.

In October 2014, just after the Scottish referendum, I wrote a story based on interviews with local people in Sitges and other Catalonian towns such as Figueres, north of Barcelona.

I wanted to know whether they had been following events in Scotland, and the answer was that they had been following it closely – I recall that the only person I spoke to who had been unaware of Scotland was a young woman.

Like many Scots feel about London, many Catalans feel that they get a raw deal out of their relationship with Madrid. Unlike Scotland, however, Catalonia is wealthy and a net contributor to Spain.

The cosmopolitanism and affluence of Catalonia is evident in Barcelona and Sitges.

One of the things that was on my mind last month in the latter of those two locations last month was the prospect of someone turning up on the beach with a gun, as happened in Tunisia.

I did not see any armed police on the boulevard between the town and the beach, as friends tell me was evident this summer in Salou, further south along the coast (and a more popular destination for British visitors).

I don’t doubt that the Spanish authorities have plans for a rapid response to an incident in Sitges, or anywhere else in the country that attracts tourists, so I would not hesitate to go back there, despite Thursday’s massacre.

In some respects I am less concerned about Islamic extremism than I was 15 years ago, after 911.

I had in the late 1990s been working on the news websites where I covered a lot of news from the Middle East, and watched with horror the rise of the Taleban and Al Qaeda.

I was covering The Times breaking news section (which, back then, had only one person working on it at any one time) when news of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 atrocities in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi came through.

I remember well the footage of bloodshed after those attacks. For some reason, it seemed particularly poignant about the fact that the victims were already so poor.

The reason that I am a little less concerned about the Islamic extremist threat than then is that the terrorists seem to have a limited number of volunteers and no access to weapons of mass destruction.

I had thought that the toppling of the Twin Towers would, among other things, be the demise of skyscrapers, which would become too vulnerable to attack. But high rise buildings have been in vogue ever since and are being built around the world.

They day will come when the lunatics get weapons with which they can kill thousands of people at a stroke, but Islamic extremism might begin to fade before that happens. Who knows.

It is encouraging that they do not even seem to find it easy to get hold of the guns that I feared might be used on a beach.

Two things were apparent after Wednesday’s horror.

People no longer parrot this simplistic, sentimental and inadequate line: ‘Islam is a religion of peace’.

And people seem to be keeping a sense of proportion about risk. They will, in their tens of millions, stay in holiday spots around Europe.

I noticed this when I was in London in early June, the weekend of the London Bridge massacre. The capital remained as vibrant as ever. I hope few people feel the need to take up easyJet on its offer to change Barcelona tickets. Yes, another atrocity could happen there but it could happen almost anywhere on the continent.

The chance of being killed in a road crash is incomparably higher. If road death rates in Northern Ireland are a guide, then about 25,000 people a year die on Europe’s roads – 65+ a day.

This is not to play down the horror of Thursday. When the news came in of the attack, a few of us in the office saw early footage of the aftermath, which included a boy seen lying dead. It was a disgusting scene of great wickedness.

It is just that by soldiering on, we defy the murdering savages.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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