I went to bed one night this week, planning a round-the-world trip to celebrate a big birthday later this year. I was imagining where I might go, who I might visit, what I might do. I fell asleep trying to figure out how long I could reasonably take off work or how much work I could do when travelling.
I awoke up to hear that Brussels had been bombed. The airport. The metro. Brussels? Brussels! Brussels?! The core of the European Union. The city from which the EU is governed. A city that many of my diplomat friends have called home and many others still call home.
I’m left wondering why I’m so surprised.
Istanbul, a city I’ve visited just once, but one that was high on my list of places to go back to, has seen a slew of attacks in recent months. Streets I walked on. Cafés I passed by. Corners on which I stood breathing in the city. Blown up. Gone. Perhaps amongst the dead and wounded are people I met in passing. I’ll never know.
Paris, a city I reconnected with last year, another city high on my list of places to go back to, has also been a victim of the terrorism that’s plaguing the world. Could I ever watch a football game or go to a music venue there without wondering what if? I’m not sure.
And now Brussels. I’ve been there a number of times. I prefer their chocolate truffles to their beer. As I write, the casualty count has hit the hundred mark and the metro is set to reopen. The airport? That’s another story.
French physicist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie said once that nothing in life is to be feared; it is only to be understood. I grew up with the IRA and learned from an early age that terrorists win by changing how we live our lives, by instilling fear, by inducing paranoia. I thought I understood enough not to be afraid, not to change, not to fear. Now, I’m not sure.
I used to take comfort in the fact that a fortune teller told me once that I’d live until I was 87. Have at it lads, I thought. I’m invincible for a few years yet. But then they never said what sort of life it would be. Terrorist attacks leave more than death and destruction in their wake. Hearts and souls are irreparably damaged. Children grow up far too quickly. Parents grow old far too soon. And the ugly seeds of distrust are sown. Yes, fear makes strangers of people who would be friends (a nod to actress Shirley MacLaine there).
Later, as the news from Belgium flooded the Net, I checked out Budapest, using the metro, the tram, the bus. And everywhere I saw the same thing. Crowds of tourists and locals alike going about their business but now under the watchful eye of pairs of armed police and soldiers strategically positioned on street corners, in metro stations, by tram stops. I felt a modicum of safety at this rapid response, but know in my heart of hearts that if IS wants to find a way, it will. Sky News reported one IS Commander quoted in an online Islamist magazine as saying: My advice is to stop looking for specific targets, hit everyone and everything. And that would appear to be their MO. I doubt I will ever understand what drives them. Or what makes it okay in their eyes to cut short the lives of random strangers. I doubt I will ever believe in any cause enough to knowingly and willingly terrorise those who don’t.
And while I might be more vigilant as I travel, I will still go. Because, more than anything else, I fear fear itself. I do not want to be afraid.
First published in the Budapest Times 25 March 2016