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How Social Media Has Made the World Safer A Shooting in Istanbul

Fish painted on wall in IstanbulThe sun was shining when I sat down, with cats purring on one side and a couple embracing on the other. Despite the cold, the sunshine spilled generously, treating visitors to the best view of the world heritage sights they had come to see.

I sat down because of the text. The text about the shootings.

It’s not often that I receive text messages while I’m away. I loathe the extortionate roaming charges and I protect my frail bank balance by only giving my number to a fairly select few. You won’t find it on my business cards, and it’s certainly not on this website.

So when I do receive a text, a part of me feels uneasy.

I typed in my PIN, hoping that someone had simply made a mistake.

How Social Media Has Made the World Safer

Just checking you are OK and not in the vicinity of Topkapi Palace. There has been a shooting there…”

My quickening heartbeat smothered the rest.

Topkapi Palace is one of Istanbul’s main attractions. The Ottoman Sultans lived there for more than 400 years and it is said to house the Prophet Muhammad’s cloak and sword.

It’s also where I was going next.

I looked up again at the world around me. The sun still shone, the minarets of the Blue Mosque still painted the sky with their ephemeral beauty. The couple still embraced. The touts still called out “Chai!” and “offered” to polish my shoes.

In short, the world seemed the same, although everything was different.

I looked back at my phone. Another message.

“Shooting at the Blue Mosque. Hopefully you’re not around there – can you check in?”

My heartbeat played the soundtrack to my skull. Shooting. Blue Mosque. Shooting. Blue Mosque.

I looked up at the Blue Mosque, just a few metres away, and the world changed once more. It swerved a little and lurched to the left. I looked back at the shoe shiners to orient myself.

The world still looked normal, beautiful even. I had obviously been lucky. Yet, yet…the crucial question appeared.

Was it all over? Or was the gunman fifty metres away?
News stories picketed my brain: the Virginia Tech Massacre, Dunblane, Columbine…Killers on killer sprees. In several places. Authorities and inquiries claiming that more notice should have been given. More warnings should have been provided.

Well, I had been given notice. I had been warned. What should I do now?

Shouts interrupted my thoughts as a fight broke out nearby. One, then two, then three men screamed until punches were exchanged until another man pulled someone away. The cat stretched out and turned over. Someone else offered to polish my shoes.
I looked at my iPhone while the world continued. Homicidal maniac fifty metres away. No-one else knows.

My heart beat faster.

I tapped the screen to connect online, sod the roaming charges. I googled “Istanbul Shootings.”

News results appeared, from eight minutes earlier. “Security forces kill gunman at Istanbul Palace.”

I felt relieved; I felt disgusted.
The uncomfortable truth was that another person’s death had meant relief for me. It meant safety. It meant that there wasn’t someone brandishing a gun and firing it at strangers within firing distance of me.

It was a lot to experience in less than five minutes. And I didn’t like it. Any of it.
More messages came through and I reflected on social media and the newborn digital age. I had gone through the whole story by iPhone, while the cat, the couple and the shoe shiners didn’t even know there was a story yet.

Given how things turned out, the obvious conclusion would be that they were better off without the technology, without the scare. Yet, that’s only a matter of luck. What if the gunman had been in the Blue Mosque? And stepped outside and continued to fire. What then?

Would my prior knowledge have helped me? Would I have helped anyone else? If I had turned to the crowd, would anyone have listened? Or would they just have dismissed me as yet another city crazy person and turned back to enjoy the sunshine?

I don’t like to play “what if” for too long, as it rarely leads to anything productive. But with an experience like the one today, it takes a little while to shake out.

And of course, for those fighting for their lives today, and for their families, it will never shake out. For them, I am so sorry.

For the rest, I’m less sure.

What do you think?

Important Points Please, please, please don’t think that Istanbul is any more dangerous than any other mainstream city as a result of this. We all know that violence from disturbed individuals is an unfortunate fact of life. I’ve been in the vicinity of terrorism and isolated shootings before back home in the UK. And I went on to have an entirely peaceful, inspiring, intriguing look at Istanbul this afternoon.
It’s just that, well, sometimes things really make you stop and think…

What am I up to in Istanbul anyway? Why, I’m starting my #IronRoute challenge with an InterRail Global Pass. Follow along and find out more here…


20 Responses to How Social Media Has Made the World Safer A Shooting in Istanbul

  1. Robin | My Melange November 30, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    Wow. Incredible story Abi. So glad you are alright!

    • Abi December 3, 2011 at 9:47 am #

      Thanks Robin.

  2. DTravelsRound November 30, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    Istanbul is such a wonderful city. It is a shame this random act of violence took place. And I am so thankful you are alright. What I love most about this post isn’t just the telling of your story, but your encouragement to your readers to continue visiting this amazing place. When I went to Israel years ago, there were bombings around me, and yet, I fell absolutely in love with the country. I would never advise someone not to go b/c one person goes nuts. Thank you for sharing. Be safe. Have the time of your life! And, eat lots of kebabs!!

    • Abi December 3, 2011 at 9:53 am #

      I love Istanbul and wish I could have stayed for longer! Unfortunately, when it comes to safety concerns, so many people seem to overreact – in both directions. Either they’ll cancel their travel plans the moment something goes wrong or, just as worryingly, they’ll ignore all safety advice because the media often get it wrong. As you know, it’s a little more complicated than that…

  3. Zablon Mukuba December 1, 2011 at 4:36 am #

    Knowledge is power, i would love to know the things happening around me

    • Abi December 3, 2011 at 9:54 am #

      A good point. Now that I’ve had a little more time to think about it, I’m definitely glad that I knew.

  4. Amanda Castleman December 1, 2011 at 4:32 am #

    What a strong, thoughtful essay, Abi! I’m going to share it with my current crop of travel-writing classes. Happy trails, Ax

    PS: I’ll be traveling with Jerrol in New Zealand shortly for two weeks. Time for more bumper kayak, I reckon!

    • Abi December 3, 2011 at 9:54 am #

      Why thank you! (And say hello to Jerrol for me…)

  5. Cailin December 1, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Glad to hear you are alright! I don’t know what I would of done! And then what if the people around you didn’t speak english when you tried to warn them of danger? crazy
    luckily you were ok and didn’t have to worry about it :)

    • Abi December 3, 2011 at 9:59 am #

      Yes, Cailin, I hadn’t even thought about the language barrier…If I’d started shouting into the crowd perhaps I would have been arrested! Now in the cold light of day, perhaps the thing to have done would have been to use Google translate to translate the text into Turkish and show it to the security guards. Provided my hands weren’t shaking too much to manage that on the tiny iPhone screen…

  6. Steve December 1, 2011 at 11:08 pm #

    Love the contrast between the panic inducing tweets and e-mails, the mundane normality of the shoe polishers and the blissful peace of the stretching cat. Horrible story – so glad that you’re safe and really sad for those who were unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Finally, it’s fantastic that you can write about it so beautifully.

  7. Abi December 3, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    That’s made me choke a little. Thank you.

  8. Mike C December 8, 2011 at 2:23 am #

    The contrast between revulsion at a death and the relief of knowing the gunman was no longer on the loose was beautifully written. I’m still gutted I missed your talk at TBU in Innsbruck.

    • Abi December 31, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

      Wow, thank you. (And on a side note, I’m talking again at TBU in Umbria next year. Perhaps catch you then?)

  9. Caz Makepeace December 12, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    What a great story Abi. There were so many parts to this that I loved,

    I don’t like to play “what if” for too long, as it rarely leads to anything productive.”

    “The uncomfortable truth was that another person’s death had meant relief for me”

    I often feel that relief when I hear of stories like this and it startles me somewhat. It is the self preservation instincts that we all have and cannot deny. “it’s just being human.

    I am so glad you are okay and you are right, Istanbul is not a place to be feared, this sort of thing happens everywhere

    • Abi May 9, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Thanks Caz, I appreciate the comment.

  10. Mariellen Ward January 5, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    Hi Abi, Really enjoyed this taut, and thoughtful, post. I have been to several places in India that were bombed shortly, or awhile, after i was there. Always think, what if? I don;t think traveling is more dangerous than staying home, though. When it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.

    • Abi May 9, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

      Yes, I agree. But it feels strange when death shivers past you – and then keeps on going.

  11. cotton and olive May 1, 2013 at 3:13 pm #

    Very fair writing and humane. thanks for this. I am Turkish myself residing in UK for 8 years now.
    I know everyone can come across with such unfortunate events at one point in their lives. Not only in Istanbul. For me Istanbul is really one of the wonders of the world. I know lots of people in UK travel to Turkey as a very popular destination but mostly they fly directly to the south of Turkey for a nice summer holiday. They are perfectly right to go to Mediterranean Turkey to get their fair share of sun and beach. But I would personaly spare some time for Istanbul as well. Because it is beautiful with lots to offer for everyone and every age.

    • Abi May 9, 2013 at 8:21 pm #

      I think Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in the world. I’d love to go back again and I agree that those who head straight to the south are missing out.