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Fearing fear

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.

brusselsAnd 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

It begins with me

Way back in 2001, when the events of 9/11 rocked the world, I was living in a small Alaskan town of about 4000 people, a microcosm of American society. I saw how suspicions prevailed. How the word choice of seemingly intelligent colleagues broadened to include pejorative terms like rag-heads. How the immediate reaction was to shore up and dig in, to close borders, and keep America for Americans. Fast forward and this is Europe today.

I’d grown up in an Ireland where bombs were regular occurrences and being a terrorist was a job that came with and without a uniform. I’d been taught from an early age that if their actions changed how I lived my life, they’d won. I remember writing to the top ranks of the company I worked for, explaining how curtailing flights, changing work patterns, and modifying company behaviour was encouraging the very change in behavior that would give the terrorists their win. I never received a reply.

Bombs, loss of life, man’s inhumanity to man – none of it was new. America was no stranger to terrorism back then. The Oklahoma bombing was proof of that. But, as was explained to me back then, McVeigh et al. were home-grown. The 9/11 perpetrators were different. They had breached the border, broken through the defence. America was no longer a safe place in which to live.

The day before the Paris bombings, many lives were lost in Beirut. I saw little, if any media coverage. And then Paris happened. And the world became red, white, and blue. I wondered aloud when we had become so selective in our condemnation, in our reactions, with our sympathy. And this was one answer I received:  ‘This is on our patch. What they do at home [i.e., Beirut], that’s their business. But when they come into our back yard, and kill us – that’s different.’

RWB3What happened in Paris, and in Beirut, are atrocities. ISIS, in claiming the action as their own, will continue to foment anger and terror. Reports are already circulating that they have infiltrated refugees fleeing to Europe with 4000 militants, armed and ready to kill. Who knows if it’s true. Their aim would appear to be to split the world in two. To change how we live our lives. To turn us into Muslim-hating citizens who live in fear. And I do live in fear … fear that they will succeed.

Two centuries ago, politicians were citing eternal vigilance as the price of liberty. Today, we want our governments to protect us. Yet when they mention surveillance and accessing social media in order to track these terrorists, we cling feverishly to our privacy and cry foul on human rights. We want our security organisations to filter out the bad guys but when we’re held up at airport security, we moan about the inconvenience. Can we have it all? I wonder.

Are those branded ‘conspiracy theorists’ right? Is this nothing but a corporate war for profit and power being financed by the West using others as puppets to do their dirty work? Is it an excuse for countries like Hungary to put armed police on the streets to further agitate the masses and shut their borders to those in need? Is it about religion and false ideologies?  I don’t know.

What I do know is that I have a choice. I can choose to live in fear. I can choose to treat each Muslim I meet as a potential terrorist. I can choose to join those who are damning the millions fleeing ISIS-strongholds like Syria because one bomber got through the net. Or I can refuse to hate. I can have faith in human decency and hold fast to the belief that good will triumph over evil. It’s my choice. It begins with me.

First published in the Budapest Times 20 November 2015