Public reaction to news that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex and the duchess’s mother had been in a “near catastrophic” car chase with paparazzi in New York on Tuesday evening has been divided, to say the least. Some people seem to think that the severity of the incident has been inflated in an effort to drum up sympathetic PR for the Sussexes, at a time when they’re mired in several lawsuits about their privacy and security. Conservative commentator Megyn Kelly, for example, accused the pair of “exaggerating, because they like being in the public eye”.
Others, citing the obvious echoes of the paparazzi chase that killed Princess Diana in 1997, are horrified at how close the Sussexes came to death. Look on social media and you’ll also find wild conspiracy theories that a crafty King Charles engineered the whole thing and it wasn’t so much an accident as an assassination attempt.
The passionate and polarized response to Tuesday night’s incident is hardly surprising. Harry and Meghan have devoted fans and equally devoted haters; they can’t so much as eat a cheese sandwich without inspiring a string of unhinged reactions. Nevertheless, the range of responses to this particular event is remarkable: even the people directly involved seem to have very different recollections of what happened.
Let’s start with how the Sussexes characterized the chase. On Wednesday a spokesperson for Prince Harry said that the three passengers had been “involved in a near catastrophic car chase at the hands of a ring of highly aggressive paparazzi. This relentless pursuit, lasting over two hours, resulted in multiple near collisions involving other drivers on the road, pedestrians and two NYPD officers”.
Chris Sanchez, a member of Prince Harry’s security team has corroborated this description of events. “The public were in jeopardy at several points,” Sanchez told CNN. “It could have been fatal.”
The New York Police Department, meanwhile, characterized the incident as “challenging” rather than catastrophic. “The Duke and Duchess of Sussex arrived at their destination and there were no reported collisions, summonses, injuries or arrests in regard,” an NYPD spokesperson said.
New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, while condemning the paparazzi as “reckless” and “irresponsible”, similarly characterized the incident as less dramatic than the Sussexes described and cast doubt on the supposed time-frame. “I would find it hard to believe that there was a two-hour high speed chase,” Adams said. A fair point since a two-hour high-speed chase in Manhattan is near impossible unless it’s 4am on a Sunday or Vin Diesel is behind the wheel. However, as Adams noted, even a 10-minute pursuit would be “extremely dangerous in New York City”.
Whatever happened, the real hero of the hour is Sukhcharn Singh, the yellow cab driver who was chauffeuring the threesome. Singh seems remarkably relaxed about his role in shuttling the Sussexes to safety. (Bear in mind that it probably takes a lot to faze a New York cab driver.) Singh told CNN that he didn’t feel under threat by the encounter with photographers but Harry and Meghan looked “nervous and scared”. He also told the Washington Post that the incident lasted 10 minutes. “I don’t think I would call it a chase,” Singh said. “I never felt like I was in danger. It wasn’t like a car chase in a movie.” Still, added Singh, he could understand why his famous passengers were terrified. “You know, my feelings were normal, but I’m sure their feelings were more intense because of what his mom, Princess Diana, died in a crash running away from the paparazzi,” he said. “So I think their emotions must have been higher.”
And that’s really the crux of it, isn’t it? We all react to high-pressure situations in different ways, based on our personal histories. It is perfectly natural that Prince Harry would be traumatized by being aggressively pursued by the paparazzi. Nobody has any right to dismiss or diminish his response to what must have been a very triggering situation. You don’t have to particularly like Harry and Meghan to be disturbed by the constant vitriol directed against them, particularly from the British media. And you don’t have to be a Harry and Meghan cheerleader to feel disturbed at how they were treated by the royal family. Who, by the way, have kept conspicuously quiet on the car chase.
Anyway, if there’s a happy ending to come out of all of this I hope it’s that Singh gets a cameo in the next Fast and the Furious movie.
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian US columnist
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