It's Christmas, the season of peace and joy. And yet, it seems every couple of days there's news of another attack, in another part of the world, and the term "terrorism" has become so common that the media has taken to adding more exacting descriptors to better define the nature of the latest particular attack. The incident that captured the most attention, of course, was the attacks in Paris last month.
Especially for those of us who have walked its streets, and the streets of so many other cities not our own, and so believe that there is more that unites those cities and their people than divides them - those attacks have rocked us to the core. As travellers, it's almost unthinkable to consider ceasing to roam. And yet... Questions of safety and responsibility and the sensible thing to do can't help but rear their not-so-pretty heads. So - what should we do? How should we respond?
The Attacks in Paris: A Traveler’s Perspective, Moving Forward
I attempt to process what’s happening around the world by reflecting on where I am.
The morning after the attacks in Paris, I was glued to my devices, ingesting every update. At some point I needed to peel myself away from the news. So I went for a run in Tempelhof Airport Park, my usual spot in Berlin, to get some fresh air and to try and clear my head.
As I made my way down the runway, I noticed in front of the old terminal building the German flag flying at half-mast in honor of the victims in Paris, a gesture of solidarity and shared grief. The changeable arc of history was not lost on me: Germany and France, now friends, had once been at war with one another not that long ago.
In what I might call a historical flipbook moment, I considered the near constant state of change of this place where I was running.
In the mid-1930s, the airport terminal was rebuilt to be the largest building in the world, a symbol of Nazi power. During World War II, it was the site of a forced labor camp. Between 1948 and 1949, Tempelhof Airport was ground zero for the Berlin Airlift as Allied troops delivered food and supplies to the people of West Berlin during the Soviet blockade. The airport continued to serve commercial flights until it closed in 2008, after which the entire site became Berlin’s largest public park. Now it stands as a remarkable, if unceremonious, symbol of freedom and openness where everyone — from bearded hipsters to headscarved Turkish mothers — walk, picnic and thrive in common space.
Most recently, the Tempelhof terminal building became a shelter for 1,000 refugees, many of whom fled the war in Syria.
In stride, I continued to turn over the events in Paris and the attacks in Beirut and Baghdad earlier in the week. It seemed fitting that I would do so in the temporary mental refuge of a place that once symbolized humanity’s worst, yet now seeks to embody its best.
One of the techniques I use as a travel writer is to examine where I am in order to find perspective. As I communicate place, I consider the layers of history. I examine what is, versus what has been. I give air to what could be. Are there lessons I can take away? Can I find balance amidst it all?
As I ran in Berlin, thinking about Paris, some thoughts came to mind to help move me forward from what happened this past weekend. Maybe you’ll find them helpful, too.
1. So many things in life are out of our control.
Travel teaches me this lesson constantly. I see it firsthand as circumstances great and small unfold against the grain of my plans and expectations. But when our sense of security and freedom has been pierced by an act of violence or terrorism, we feel especially vulnerable and helpless.
This is natural, but it doesn’t change the fact that so much of what happens around us is fundamentally outside of our control. In fact, it underscores it.
2. How we choose to respond is in our control.
I am on a permanent journey of coming to terms with #1.
I don’t believe my acknowledgement of circumstances is a kind of fatalism. It’s a recognition that while a great deal is out of my hands, there’s still much I can do, many opportunities where I can exert influence. At the same time, I accept limits and understand that I may not always be able to prevent “bad” things from happening. However, I don’t allow these limits to restrict me, but rather to focus me and lend scope to my efforts.
So instead of shrinking from what is, I observe it, unpack it and ask myself, “What’s the most productive way I can respond?” Sure, I find that much easier said than done, particularly when my sense of what is “productive” shifts, as it’s apt to do.
Regardless, there remains an empowering takeaway: our response is our choice.
3. Consider your fears.
As I reflect on what is right and appropriate for me, I honor my fears by considering them. I’m not going to beat my chest and advise you to deny your fears and take on the world. There are plenty of good reasons to be frightened. However, question your fears. What are you afraid of? Why? What is at the root? Where will your fears take you?
At first pass, this may not be satisfying. It might even be nauseating. But there’s the potential for two very productive things to happen as you do. Examination of the root of your fears can yield new information, and consideration of this information can prevent you from self-destructively acting on impulse.
In the face of atrocity, it’s natural to want to protect yourself by retreating to safety, by building a wall made of bricks of fear. Before you do, know what that fear is made of at its foundation. Also, re-consider item #1 and think on what it really means to be safe.
4. My front of choice: Focusing on how I engage with others.
After feeling angry that the world “shouldn’t be this way” and frustrated by not having any control over what has happened, I found a sense of empowerment in how I can choose to respond.
I choose to honor my life and the lifestyle that I value, and to honor the humanity that I am one of, one with. From those core values — the big things — I progressed to the little things. There’s power in the little things. Always will be.
As I passed other people during my run — some on their own, others with children, some in hats, others in headscarves – I made a point to acknowledge each of them, maybe even to smile. This ismy response.
I find that making a conscious effort to engage people with kindness and a greeting makes me feel more connected to those around me. After an unsettling event like the attacks in Paris, I notice others making this effort, too. Whether its the guys originally from Lebanon throwing pies for years at the corner pizza joint or the old German guy who owns the cheese shop down the street, they all understand that despite the initial appearance of insignificance, simple interactions are how we build and rebuild connection and goodwill.
5. Reject the wedge, the divide.
Make no mistake, terrorism of the sort we witnessed in Paris is designed to injure and it relies on the ensuing pain and grief as a lever to turn one group of people in a society against another. It’s a deliberate attempt to construct a narrative — the “us vs. them” narrative — where there really is only us.
We can counter the barbarity of terrorism by being better than it, to choose to engage even more within our community. We can practice empathy and try to understand what others have gone through, what they are still suffering with now. No, it won’t always be easy. But in the shadow of pain, it is our best way forward.
6. If you are inclined to cancel your travel plans, reconsider.
There are plenty of good reasons why you might be pulling back on that booked or almost-booked trip to Paris or wherever else. If you are, I can’t fault you for being scared. I’ve been on that edge myself; I know how it feels. All I can suggest is that you pause and reconsider. Living in fear and canceling plans to insulate yourself from the “other” are exactly what terrorists would like you to do.
Travel is one of the best ways to say “no.”
We have control over how we choose to act and how we engage with others. This constant gives each of us power in the face of atrocities meant to instill fear and hate.
In this, I find strength. I also find hope.