I could never have imagined that a 19-year-old suicide bomber would actually teach me a valuable lesson. But he did. He taught me to never presume anything about anyone you don’t know.
On a Thursday morning in July 2005, the bomber and I, unknowingly, boarded the same train carriage at the same time, standing, apparently, just feet apart. I didn’t see him. Actually, I didn’t see anyone. You know not to look at anyone on the Tube, but I guess he saw me. I guess he looked at all of us, as his hand hovered over the detonation switch. I’ve often wondered: What was he thinking? Especially in those final seconds.
I know it wasn’t personal. He didn’t set out to kill or maim me, Gill Hicks. I mean — he didn’t know me. No. Instead, he gave me an unwarranted and an unwanted label. I had become the enemy. To him, I was the “other,” the “them,” as opposed to “us.” The label “enemy” allowed him to dehumanize us. It allowed him to push that button. And he wasn’t selective. Twenty-six precious lives were taken in my carriage alone, and I was almost one of them.
In the time it takes to draw a breath, we were plunged into a darkness so immense that it was almost tangible; what I imagine wading through tar might be like. We didn’t know we were the enemy. We were just a bunch of commuters who, minutes earlier, had followed the Tube etiquette: no direct eye contact, no talking and absolutely no conversation.
But in the lifting of the darkness, we were reaching out. We were helping each other. We were calling out our names, a little bit like a roll call, waiting for responses.
“I’m Gill. I’m here. I’m alive. OK.”
“I’m Gill. Here. Alive. OK.”
I didn’t know Alison. But I listened for her check-ins every few minutes. I didn’t know Richard. But it mattered to me that he survived.
All I shared with them was my first name. They didn’t know that I was a head of a department at the Design Council. And here is my beloved briefcase, also rescued from that morning. They didn’t know that I published architecture and design journals, that I was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, that I wore black — still do — that I smoked cigarillos. I don’t smoke cigarillos anymore. I drank gin and I watched TED Talks, of course, never dreaming that one day I would be standing, balancing on prosthetic legs, giving a talk.
I was a young Australian woman doing extraordinary things in London. And I wasn’t ready for that all to end. I was so determined to survive that I used my scarf to tie tourniquets around the tops of my legs, and I just shut everything and everyone out, to focus, to listen to myself, to be guided by instinct alone. I lowered my breathing rate. I elevated my thighs. I held myself upright and I fought the urge to close my eyes.
I held on for almost an hour, an hour to contemplate the whole of my life up until this point. Perhaps I should have done more. Perhaps I could have lived more, seen more. Maybe I should have gone running, dancing, taken up yoga. But my priority and my focus was always my work. I lived to work. Who I was on my business card mattered to me. But it didn’t matter down in that tunnel.
By the time I felt that first touch from one of my rescuers, I was unable to speak, unable to say even a small word, like “Gill.” I surrendered my body to them. I had done all I possibly could, and now I was in their hands.
I understood just who and what humanity really is, when I first saw the ID tag that was given to me when I was admitted to hospital. And it read: “One unknown estimated female.” One unknown estimated female. Those four words were my gift. What they told me very clearly was that my life was saved, purely because I was a human being. Difference of any kind made no difference to the extraordinary lengths that the rescuers were prepared to go to save my life, to save as many unknowns as they could, and putting their own lives at risk. To them, it didn’t matter if I was rich or poor, the color of my skin, whether I was male or female, my sexual orientation, who I voted for, whether I was educated, if I had a faith or no faith at all. Nothing mattered other than I was a precious human life.
I see myself as a living fact. I am proof that unconditional love and respect can not only save, but it can transform lives. Here is a wonderful image of one of my rescuers, Andy, and I taken just last year. Ten years after the event, and here we are, arm in arm.
Throughout all the chaos, my hand was held tightly. My face was stroked gently. What did I feel? I felt loved. What’s shielded me from hatred and wanting retribution, what’s given me the courage to say: this ends with me is love. I was loved.
I believe the potential for widespread positive change is absolutely enormous because I know what we’re capable of. I know the brilliance of humanity. So this leaves me with some pretty big things to ponder and some questions for us all to consider: Is what unites us not far greater than what can ever divide? Does it have to take a tragedy or a disaster for us to feel deeply connected as one species, as human beings? And when will we embrace the wisdom of our era to rise above mere tolerance and move to an acceptance for all who are only a label until we know them?