On Having the Courage to Live

This evening in Barcelona, though the details of the perpetrators and their motives are still unclear, some number of huge asshole cowards injured or killed dozens of innocent people by driving a van through a crowded and popular tourist destination– La Rambla. They chose a method, location, a time of attack to maximize casualties, and disregarded– or perhaps reveled in– the fact that many of their victims would be families and children.

The exact details of the attack, the attackers, and their craven and hollow motivations will no doubt come to light in the coming days. It’s likely that no amount of investigation will ever turn up satisfactory answers. Families are broken, while others’ lives are forever changed. The only power that many people, especially locals, have in the aftermath of this kind of attack is over their reaction to it.

I lived in Boston on September 11th, 2001. The hijackers departed from my city that day, and I still recall so clearly how surreal and numb it felt to walk through abandoned streets as many people stayed home and bore witness to a changed world. I heard sirens blaring deep into the night as the authorities raced around the city, investigating the hijackers actions leading up to boarding the flights. No doubt, the streets of Barcelona will be similarly and eerily empty tonight as local security services race to uncover answers.

The Frugal Vagabond is nominally both a blog about travel and personal finance, but fundamentally it’s about my life, and a tool to develop and strengthen our own commitment to the things that we love. My wife and I have visited countries recovering from recent civil wars, departed airports hours before explosives have been discovered there, and visited cities coping with the specter of terror.

Next week, we depart for Spain on a trip that has been planned for many months. We’re celebrating our one year wedding anniversary there. Our hotel in Barcelona is less than fifty feet from where the attacks unfolded today. I’m not sure why, but reading today’s news coverage made me think more deeply about the responsibilities of a traveler arriving in the aftermath of an attack like this. I think about whether it’s appropriate to stop by the scene and leave flowers, how or whether to talk about it with locals, and yes, I think about whether we should take any unusual precautions to remain safe. The one thing we didn’t consider, however, is staying at home.

Living in a free society is, by definition, vulnerable. Every public place or interaction is based upon the premise that everyone involved will behave with civility and fundamental humanity. We simply accept as fact that on the whole, most people are like us: they want to live, work, and thrive safely and happily. That’s why terrorism hurts so badly. It makes us acutely aware of the vulnerability of all of our everyday activities. What if most people didn’t agree to stop at stop lights, deal with one another fairly in business, prepare safe and healthy food for one another, and respect one another’s property? Isn’t the safest place for all of us at home, where we can exist in a small but manageable sphere of influence?

No.

Staying at home would be a tragedy, because terrorism is fundamentally about ignorance. Ignorant terrorists claiming to represent a whole group (be it religion, ethnicity, or nationality) attack those who they have already mentally dehumanized. They rely on their victims to respond in kind. Extremist groups are sustained and nourished when they are shown the same hate that they show their victims. It allows them to recruit the disaffected and renew the cycle of violence. Stopping terrorism, from the perspective of the traveler or the everyday person, starts with refusing to harden your heart, refusing to be afraid, and refusing the generalize the “other.”

A popular quote by Mark Twain says that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” That has never been more true. It is impossible to believe in the concept of the monolithic “other” when you have traveled, met them, eaten with them, and been made to feel welcome.

For the average person, the best way to fight terror is to make a sincere effort to know people of all kinds… something you can’t do at home. As locals pick up the pieces after a cruel and gutless attack like this one, and as travelers tread lightly on bloody ground, the greatest rejection of the terrorists and all that they believe is having the courage to live.

6 thoughts on “On Having the Courage to Live

  1. Mrs. Adventure Rich

    What a poignant post in light of what has happened today (and across the world) in recent years. I live in a more remote “off the map” area of the US, far from bigger cities. But when I travel to hubs like NYC or even just enter airports, I now have the notion of vulnerability cross my mind more often than not. Terrorists around the world want us to be fearful… afraid to live.

    But I think you have one of the best responses. You are traveling despite the fear or vulnerability. Thank you for reminding us to live with courage and compassion, regardless of our situation, location or concerns!

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      Hey, Joe! I actually thought of your post when I was writing this! Thankfully we haven’t been quite that close to an attack. I try to always keep in mind that the potential for violence and danger exist everywhere, but the alternative– a life with nothing of value to look back on– sounds far worse to me.

  2. Mao

    I especially like your last paragraph. “For the average person, the best way to fight terror is to make a sincere effort to know people of all kinds… something you can’t do at home. ”

    Very well said.

    As someone who lived in both Asia and the US, studied at international schools and traveled the world, there’s simply too much ignorance. The more I travel, the more I appreciate people of all kinds, and most importantly, we are all very similar.

    I also have been making more of an effort in which I believe that you are your country’s ambassador when you travel. It really is up to us on how we can bridge the gap of ignorance and help each other understand one another more.

    1. The Vagabond Post author

      We are definitely in agreement! I also really like your note that people are fundamentally very similar. As much fun as it can be to experience the differences, discovering our fundamental sameness can be just as enlightening. Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. Laura Babbitt

    I’m a U.S. citizen, and I was in Malta on 9/11/2001. I had no idea how long I would be stranded there until air traffic resumed. I will never forget the outpouring of compassion my group received the following week until we returned safely home to our loved ones. By all means, talk to locals if you are present in the aftermath of terrorism. “I am so sorry this happened to you,” is all you need.

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