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I Am All Out of Words.

22 March 2016

When I was fourteen, I traveled through the Brussels airport. It was at the end of my first foreign trip without my mom. She had told me that I had to get out of the house for a month, and I called her bluff. I said I’d bicycle in Europe, and she sent me. I rode across France and Spain with a group of teenagers, and then took a train to Brussels and flew home.

I don’t remember the airport. I’m sure it had changed completely in the twenty-six years between then and now. I remember being afraid to fly across the Atlantic ocean. What if something went wrong with the plane? Where could it land? I’m still afraid to fly. I fly a lot, for someone who’s afraid of it. I’ve made a conscious decision in life not to let fear stop me from doing the things I love.

Today, it seems, someone bombed the airport. More than a dozen are dead. A nearly simultaneous bombing at a subway station killed a dozen more. It might not be over. It comes on the heels of the arrest, in Brussels, of the last at-large participant in the Paris bombings and slaughter back in November. I was relieved when Abdeslam was captured. I hoped it represented a disruption of these events.

It never occurred to me, then, to fear bombings or shootings. I was afraid of a mechanical fault. Now, I am less naive about the risks, and better at statistics. Travel is very safe, and the dangers that attend it are myriad, but remote. Dining out, commuting, going to theaters. All of these things have risks I didn’t know to fear when I was a child.

The famous specter we all have in our heads these days is so-called Islamic terror. But in my own country, most of the acts of terror are committed with no Islamic motive. It’s usually a young man with a gun killing indiscriminately. Driven sometimes by mental illness, sometimes by hate, sometimes by imagined grievance.

We can’t stop violence. We can’t stop grievance. We can’t cure every mental illness and we can’t assuage all the toxicities of religions and politics intermingled. If I’m honest, I don’t know even how to try. I like to have answers and opinions. I don’t here. It’s not obvious to me what the best way is. Some obvious paths – like restricting access to guns – seem intractably sealed. The suggestions of understanding and integration and multiculturalism seem hopelessly naive on days like today. The calls for more war perplex and dismay me.

But here is what I will not do. I will not be made to hate. I will not be made to judge a community by the actions of the most extreme. I will not stifle my joy in exploration. I will not abandon my excursions nor refuse to experience the world with my own hands and breath and heart.

I can be made to fear. I am afraid of many things. But terrorism does not inspire an exceptional fear. And it does not inspire me to vengeance or to isolationism. Life is inextricable from risk. Safety is not my highest aspiration. I was the boy who goes to stand at the edge of the chasm, to feel the rush of air rising from below. I am still that boy.

No madman with a gun or a god can stamp that thrill from me. My heart is softer than that. Softer than they want it to be. Today, I weep for Belgium, but not for the boy I was when I visited. Not for the young man I was when I returned. And not for the man I’ll be when I go there again. I know what man I’ll be.

This violence cannot change me. They may make me fear. But they cannot make me cower.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Aimee permalink
    22 March 2016 13:34

    Brave words, and the correct response, in my opinion. But lucky for you, you are making these decisions about travel and so forth as a non-parent. As much as I agree with your stance and as much as I would love to be able to adopt it fully myself, being a mother makes it impossible. Or at least, much more difficult. For example, for months we have been discussing the idea of sending your middle neice to London for a year as an exchange student. All of us love the idea in principle, but with every attack on a major European Capitol it becomes harder to support it. I loathe the thought of letting fears about her safety – fears about a remote possibility, I know – limit her experience and education. I hate it. If I were thinking about spending a year in London myself I’d have no hesitation. But sending my minor child is just different. It just is.

    • 22 March 2016 13:35

      I don’t doubt that it is different. But I don’t think the response should be. You’ll be prouder of a child who dares, than one who simpers, I think.

      • Aimee permalink
        22 March 2016 14:04

        Those aren’t the only options. Discretion is the better part of valor, so they say, and I would also be proud of a child who learns how to make a considered risk/benefit analysis. Of course, given her age, the decision isn’t hers, but mine and her father’s. Can the benefits of that experience be gained in any other, safer way? Have we done our homework and are we accurately assessing the risks? Are there compromise positions available? I think there are certain postures extant between defiant recklessness and cowering on one’s knees.

  2. Aimee permalink
    22 March 2016 14:06

    PS I’m not sure “simper” means what you think it means.

  3. Syd permalink
    27 March 2016 12:46

    Not afraid here either. But I can see Aimee’s point. Worry comes no matter what when others we love are involved. I fear less for myself than I worry about what happens to others.

    My experience with the Brussels airport was being stuck there for 24 hours when a freak snow storm hit and grounded the planes. I remember lots of angry passengers from Africa who were yelling in French and being nasty to airline agents. At least, I got to hang out with a group of good people and we talked for hours.

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