“[T]he advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.”
– Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948
I have been thinking about this post for a long time. I was going to title it “Nightmares,” to reflect the horrors from recent current events that haunt me, day and night. The first inspiration for this post was the March 22 terrorist attack on the international airport and train station in Brussels. I have always been deeply affected by the suffering of others, no matter how far removed they are. Even when the distress is only imagined, my emotional / psychological response is very real. That is why I do not watch many movies, or even television dramas. I avoid news broadcasts and read The Economist to learn about current events, so that I can just turn the page if things get too intense. But the Brussels attacks seemed to be everywhere; I could not escape the despair and terror that those explosions provoked around the world.
One particular video that was doing the rounds on the major news networks kept me up at night, and still crosses my mind regularly even now. A cell-phone camera scans a smokey check-in area where luggage has been hastily abandoned. Crouched against a wall are a sister and brother, not much older than my own children, clinging to each other and crying. What must have befallen their parents for these small children to have been left alone? I tried to tell myself that the photographer was their father, and that as soon as he stopped recording he scooped them up and brought them to family therapy to process the traumatic experience. But even if that optimistic interpretation is true, I know those children’s lives will never be the same. They will never be as carefree and innocently happy as my kids. How will the hate of others stifle their joy in the short- and long-run?
I was still reeling from the Brussels attacks when I woke up to news of the March 27 Easter bombing in Lahore, Pakistan. Having spent the weekend at a series of similar celebrations with my own family, the thought that anyone could be so sick to target children and families at such a joyous gathering shook me to my core. Again, I tried not to think about it, but photos and personal stories of tragedy spoke to me from every television and newspaper.
Just as I became able make it through a day without ruminating on the Lahore massacre, I boarded the train on my commute to work a few weeks to see a Washington Post Express on the seat beside me, blaring its headline “Terror in Istanbul.” I felt like I had been punched in the stomach.
Before I could publish this post, the world was horrified yet again, this time by a gruesome mowing down of families enjoying Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, France. The details are still emerging, but initial reports (and photos) are gut-wrenching. Many of the nearly one hundred victims were foreigners and children who had come together in a patriotic celebration that should have been a wonderful memory. Instead, one man turned that evening into the event that ended or scarred hundreds of lives.
I was recently catching up on my Smart People Podcasts (disclaimer: my cousin is the creator and host, but he does a masterful job of recruiting and interviewing thought leaders from every field) and was struck by a comment by Dr. Daniel Amen, author of “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life.” Dr. Amen talked about how his team had done brain scans of tens of thousands of people and found that when humans experience some traumatic event, especially in childhood, it changes their brains. These changes often lead to depression, anxiety, and psychosomatic disorders. The tragedy of these attacks carries on, and may even intensify, long after the story has faded from public consciousness.
Don’t get me wrong, I was upset by the massacre in Orlando as well, and the terrorist attacks in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in the world in the past two weeks, but there is something about these indiscriminate attacks on families and travelers that is particularly abhorrent to me.
I believe that travel is the best way to overcome ignorance, distrust, and stereotypes. By exploring other cultures and meeting people different from ourselves we come to appreciate the rich diversity of our human community. These recent attacks seem intended to intimidate folks so that they will not venture out of their comfort zones. That will only increase marginalization. The Brexit vote and imminent nomination of Donald Trump as the GOP’s presidential candidate confirm that fear, isolationism, and prejudice have become a global epidemic. Unfortunately, these inclinations create a self-reinforcing downward cycle of “us versus them.” If people do not go out into the world, I worry about the future of our world.
That is why, even with these horrific headlines haunting me, I refuse to let them change me or my decisions. Over the next few weeks, my family will be spending considerable time in four major international airports. I have been worried about how to keep my kids occupied on 25 hours in flight and 14 hours at the airport (each way!), what they should wear, whether to check or carry our carseat, etc., but not whether we will be safe while traveling. Many people live in constant fear – of losing their jobs and not being able to support their families, of violence (whether from a civil war, neighborhood gangs, an abusive spouse, etc.), of the return of a serious illness, or a million other things. But I am so blessed to be able to choose to feel free from fear. It is a choice I have to make every time there is another terrible headline and more horrifying photos.
I agree that freedom from fear is a basic human right, but it is far from universal. And I fear we are headed in the wrong direction.