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?
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.