Last Updated on June 21, 2020 by Audrey Scott
I attempt to process what’s happening around the world by reflecting on where I am.
The morning after the terrorist 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 is my 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.
29 thoughts on “Responding to Terrorist Attacks: A Traveler’s Perspective, Moving Forward from Fear”
Great piece, and lots to think about. You’re right about #6 (among other things). I still believe travel is the single most effective (& fastest) way to facilitate cultural exchange, and cultural exchange is the single best way to increase global peace long term.
Attacking with fear and military power may help slightly in the short term, but long term, will cause more harm than good. In my mind, education, cultural exchange, understanding, and community is the only way to combat extremists long term. I hope people make the right choice.
Drew, certainly agree with you regarding travel as one of the best ways to foster cultural exchange and understanding. When you have engaged with someone from a country, religion, group then you that personal experience makes you realize shared humanity instead of focusing on the differences.
And yes, education and understanding are certainly needed for long-term and real change. I’d add to that economic development as often people turn to extremism because they feel disenfranchised without job opportunities or faith in the future. Like you, hoping people choose to engage instead of retreating.
Thank you for this well written piece. It encompasses my own beliefs and I hope others reflect on everything you said. Being a massive traveller myself, I forget about #6 because it’s something I would never consider doing.
However, many people do. The attacks happened the night before I was leaving for a 6 week jaunt in Europe. My father immediately called me and asked me to reconsider with his main worry focused on the fact that 3 of those weeks would be spent in London. I had to calmly remind him that I live in New York where the threat of terrorism is something we face everyday. I’m no safer there then I am in London. Or even in my small 3 mile hometown in the middle-of-nowhere Florida where drunk driving accidents are a dime a dozen.
Something can happen to you anytime, anywhere. My best friend died at the age of 25 of a freak blood clot after a long flight, another 20-something year old friend who competes in national fitness competitions was recently diagnosed with cancer. You just never know and not living your life in fear of all this is one of the worst things anyone can do.
Thanks again for your wonderful article.
Kristen, I understand your father’s concerns, but am glad to hear that you are going ahead with your travel plans. And yes, travel does seem to provide a different perspective on safety and how the possibility of getting hurt at home doing regular stuff (e.g., like driving) is much higher than traveling in another country. As you wrote and shared the stories of your friends, there’s no way to protect yourself from “bad” things. Once you recognize that, it makes it easier to understand how important it is to actively engage with and live life.
Have a fantastic trip in Europe!
Thanks for writing this. It’s probably not easy to unpack your thoughts after something like this, but somehow I understand how it helped to take a run around Tempelhof. I especially like the idea of taking something this terrible and turning it into a personal challenge to put more light, love & empathy into the world.
Ben, there’s something about the feeling at Tempelhof that is so special and difficult to describe. And I find it’s the place that I go to try and process things – there’s something about the history and the wide spaces that helps me find perspective and a bit of peace in times like this.
Yes to personal challenges that take horrific actions like this and turn that negative energy around into something positive and opening. There’s something personally empowering in that as well.
I was / am the same way. I haven’t been able to stop reading the news. I find it intriguing. As much as I loved learning about World War 2 and researched it to death, I never wanted to experience it first hand. There are a lot of similarities and of course a lot of differences with how these attacks are being played out. It’s terrifying but it can’t let us stop us from living and travelling. That would be giving in.
Madi, I’m not usually a news junkie, but have found myself ingesting so much about the Paris attacks. I’ve found that some of the articles written before the attacks on ISIS actually have provided the most insight into understanding why these bombings occurred and where they may lead. It’s easy to feel fear, but I agree that continuing to travel and live in a way that supports your values is the best way to honor the victims and go against the goals of the terrorists.
Thanks for wording this so well. I feel the same way and was sharing the same type of sentiments on social media on the weekend. I’ll definitely be sharing this wisdom of yours too. Sarah 🙂
Right now, as luck would have it, I’m rereading Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which I’ve always considered as a guide to being a good human being. And right now, with all the news of the last week, it’s been helpful getting my head straight.
(I seem to remember you guys are Covey fans too – and #1 and #2 sounds like his thinking about spheres of influence. Timely stuff.)
Not getting scared and losing our self-control and turning on each other…is where all the power is, for all of us. It’s where we can actually do something that stops these lunatics. If it truly is “them and us” in this case, we should decide upon the nature of “us”. Who do we want to be? They want us to get angry and violent, to fight ourselves, and to make gross generalisations about innocent people and turn on them too. When we’re doing that, when we’re bickering about immigration and shrieking xenophobic hate on Facebook and closing borders and trying to out-gun and out-bomb terrorists – we’re doing their work for them, and risking becoming them, in some small but indelible way. They are changing our behaviour so we’re the heartless enemy they crave, for some kind of twisted sense of legitimacy. They turn us into the monsters, so they can “defend themselves” against us and then make a big show about doing that, so they can recruit more people to their cause… .
We can do better than that. Surely.
Regarding #6, I’m in Paris in nine days – and I’m not cancelling my travel plans.
Mike, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I found myself nodding along saying Yes as I read and reread it. It’s interesting, as I wouldn’t have thought of Covey in times like this but I definitely get it now that I think about it. He’s about making deliberate decisions based on a thought framework that goes beyond immediate and short-term.
It really saddened me to see the hate and divisiveness come out on social media in reaction to this. I kept thinking how this event will affect lives of refugees — those who are still fleeing war-torn areas and those who have reached what they thought was safety — and how tragic it is that the exact reason why many of them are fleeing is continuing to make their lives hell even after they’ve left. It’s natural to have emotions in times like this, but stepping back to think of what “us” we want and understanding the importance of our individual actions and decisions on creating that is empowering. Yes, we can do better.
Really glad to hear you are on your way to Paris soon. We weren’t planning a trip there, but after last weekend we’re now considering it 🙂
I love this, Audrey. After spending October in the Middle East, I too have been telling my readers to transcend the fear and hate by looking past the news headlines and making the choice to seek all the things we have in common with those in far-flung, hostile places – because they are there. Thank you for this.
Helen, your comment is a reminder why traveling and spending time in regions like the Middle East is so important. It’s hard to understand the deep culture of hospitality in this region without experiencing it first-hand. And this puts the headlines into perspective. Glad you are also spreading this message with your readers.
I agree 100%. Thanks for posting! Needed words of encouragement.
Yep .. life goes on and if you change your plans at all the terrorism was effective. I’m happy to ignore them an do whatever I’d do normally. Life is too short to be afraid.
Agree. It’s natural to feel fear, but knowing that by going on with my regular life and travels goes against what terrorists want serves as motivation.
Thanks for this. I’ve been struggling with this events. For some reason they made me more vulnerable than usual, even when I’ve avoided watching or reading any news since day one. I’ve been nervous about it all, to the point where my anxiety kicked in really hard yesterday. I’ve been travelling for 3 months, I’ve been feeling slightly anxious lately because fast travel is not for me and then, because I’m going to Paris next week. I became highly undecided and scared about the whole thing. Travel is my life, now more than ever as well, and the idea behind “don’t let fear stop you, keep travelling” won’t finish making sense to me when I feel there’s an actual threat to my life, even if remote. I’m a lot better today about it and not cancelling my trip but that concept is not fully digested in my common sense pool yet. Again, thanks for your words here! 🙂
Mariana, so glad to hear that you’ve decided to continue with your trip to Paris. The fears and anxiety are all natural, trust me. Glad that this post was helpful in processing this and making deliberate decisions about travel and other life issues. Enjoy your time in Paris!!
Wise words if we stop livog we Let them win. We need to remember our humanity and embrace all we meet in life then love will win over hate.
I already had plans to visit Paris for a few days between Christimas and New Year. It hasn’t even occured to me to cancel them. I have 3 reasons for discouraging anyone else from cancelling their plans. Firstly, you can’t live your life governed by fear. Secondly, now is the time to support France and Paris and stick a metaphorical finger up at the terrorists. Thirdly, Paris is probably going to be the safest place to be in the near future, just think of all that extra security.
Do agree that traveling now to Paris and France is a way to support the city financially and emotionally when it needs it most, not to mention it shows the terrorists that their goal of discouraging travel and engagement didn’t work. Hope you have a great time there over the holidays!
In the closed loop of violence, violence always begets more of the same, with all sources usually justifying their choice as that of a reaction to their adversaries. The irony is that in using violence one attempts to teach its futility and ineffectiveness by employing it, and the never ending cycle is sold as understandable. 9/11 was an opportunity to step outside of this loop, and the consequences of not doing so are now evident, with few voices offering an alternative narrative to conventional behavior. Thanks Audrey, for urging us to confront our
fears, and to feel the freeing effect of acknowledging the many things in daily life that we do not control. Perhaps we will someday come to consider the true sense of freedom that can be found in limitation, and the burden that we carry with the expectation of unlimited choice. Short term we will continue our preoccupation with the unexpected disruptions that happen globally, but long term, history seems to be telling us that the greatest overlooked threat to the survival of our cultures may be found in the things we put in our market baskets and the food systems that produce them.
Thanks, Don, for your thoughtful comment and highlighting the upside of limitation. It helps us focus where we can actually make a difference, and that individual and small actions truly do add up for greater impact. And yes, sometimes the issues that will have the biggest long-term impact on humanity and our way of life are not highlighted or addressed in the discussions about “security.”
I totally agree! Hence why I wrote a similar article to this last week… Great stuff 🙂
By definition, terror aims at striking fear into people, so when you reach the point of being too afraid to live your life the way you want to – traveling to all those amazing places, enjoying the world – the terrorists have reached their goal. Don’t ever let that happen!
Last week we were officially told (by the Department of Education and Cultural Affairs) to cancel the 10th grade school trip to Paris (planned for February 2016), which was extremely disappointing for our students and their parents – none of whom had even considered opting out.
Svenja, I’m so sorry to hear of the cancelled trip for the tenth graders to Paris planned for next February. How horrible for the students and their parents. And really disappointed that the Department of Education and Cultural Affairs told the school to cancel this. So frustrating, when what we need are more such exchanges and opportunities for learning…not canceling trips because of fear.
Great article, Audrey. I agree with everything you say — especially the part about connecting with the ordinary people we meet every day. When we experience a smile, a nice comment, someone holding a door for us, —
just being friendly in general, it can set the mood for the whole day. We really do need each other — no matter race or religion!!
Very nice article. Too bad things like that can happen. But we need to move on, and pray that it would not happen again.
A beautiful and valuable post, Audrey. Thanks.