Almost two weeks ago, I woke up to the discover the horrible news that Paris had suffered a terrorist attack by the hands of ISIS. When I read how 129 people had died – how the terrorists had targeted a concert where young people were having fun, a stadium where cheers of celebration swiftly turned to cries of fear, and restaurants and bars where families and friends were enjoying time together – it really did shock me. It shocked me because I was in Paris not too long ago, and I have friends who are going there in a few weeks, and because I know people who live there – Omar, Saiina, Rochelle and Kristoff, Christopher. It shocked me because I have plans to live in Paris one day, because I thought it was the city of love, because screams and gunshots were not the sounds I imagined to be heard drifting through the same streets I had heard La Vie en Rose.
The impact seemed all the more prominent to me not just because of the physical proximity, but because my mind ventured onto the dangerous playground of the ‘what if’ game. What if I had decided to go to Paris that week? What if there’s another attack while my friends are there? What if there’s an attack in Madrid?
I talk to my host parents about the situation a lot. I ask them questions while we’re in the car and while we’re eating dinner. I talk to my friends about it too; asking them what they think, if they feel scared, and what their parents have to say. Everyone acknowledges that the situation is serious but keeps reiterating that we can’t live in fear. The reality is that the world is full of danger – it always has been and always will be. But we don’t stay inside our houses all day because we’re afraid of being hit by a car. We don’t refuse to go exploring because we’re afraid the plane will crash. We don’t refrain from going to the beach because we’re afraid of being eaten by a shark. To put simply, we don’t let fear stop us from living.
In a way, the idea of living through fear reminds me of the wedding scene from Harry Potter. I never understood why the Weasleys still celebrated Bill and Fleur’s wedding when the threat of Voldemort was so real. I never understood how during the wars, people saved their raisin coupons so they could bake a cake to celebrate someone’s birthday or why people still danced, and sang songs, and went to school. I never understood it but now – even though the fear is not nearly to the same degree – I do. I follow people who live in Paris on instagram and see them post pictures under the Eiffel Tower, at the Louvre, walking down the Champs Elysees. I see them post pictures of cafes they passed on the way to work and sunsets they saw on the way home…because you simply have to go on living…you have to go on living.
In terms of the safety of Madrid, my host parents assured me that it’s not likely a target. But even so, it’s unnerving to go to the Prado Museum and distinctly notice all the extra security parading about. I walk down the streets of Madrid, past policemen with big guns, and can’t help but feel a bit worried. I take the metro to Atocha Station – the station where the biggest terrorist attack in Europe occurred killing 191 people in 2004 – and can’t help but feel slightly anxious. I pass people holding backpacks and briefcases on the street, and can’t help but wonder what’s inside of them. I suppose that’s the power of terrorism. It fills the world with doubt, divides the world with distrust, pollutes the world with unanswered questions. We don’t know what will happen next, where it will happen, when it will end. The uncertainty, the instability, the unpredictability – that’s the scary part. And when I hear stories about how people sold their tickets to the Madrid vs Barcelona football game, and how they are going to by-pass Christmas markets this year, and how parents are asking if there will be extra security at an elementary school’s band concert, I can’t help but wonder just how serious the situation is and just how scared I should be.
When I first heard the news, I wasn’t scared about being in Europe during all this unrest. My shock and my sadness only turned to fear when I received a message from my sisters saying that Europe is a dangerous place to be right now and that my mom wants me to come home. I hadn’t even entertained the notion of going home nor in my mind seriously addressed the impact the attack would have on the world, specifically the safety of Europe. Why? Because I had chosen to be dreadfully ignorant about the situation in Syria. I knew that there was a situation, but I didn’t know the details. I didn’t know exactly which countries were involved, what role they all played, what the root of the problem was, how the rest of the world was involved…
As soon as I learned that my safety was being threatened, I madly googled as much information as I possibly could. I read articles about bomb threats in Hannover, security increases at the Vatican, problems in Belgium, hostage situations in Northern France. I read about suspicion and fear spreading like wildfire throughout the continent – concerts being cancelled, warnings to avoid populated city areas, airport regulations tightened, armed guards in metro stations increased.
Of course I’ve always known that there are bad people in the world and that bad things – horrifying things – happen every day. But I’ve been living in a bubble – a bubble that I was born into for no reason except luck. A bubble that has protected me, sheltered me, and allowed me to view the sorrows of the world from behind the safety of a computer screen. The attack on Paris punctured that bubble of security surrounding me. I can sense it slowly deflating around me leaving me exposed, vulnerable, naked. Because now it feels like if that could happen to Paris, then it could happen to London, it could happen to Berlin, it could happen to Rome…it could happen to me.
Is it selfish of me that I only actively care and show interest now that I am being somewhat personally affected by it, even if only in a comparatively small degree? Yes. But I think that’s the psychology of human nature. Waking up to the news from my bed in Delta wouldn’t make the tragedies in Paris and other parts of the world any less devastating but being in Europe during this time, simply makes them more real to me. Especially because Paris is not a city I associate with bloodshed, turmoil, and chaos. Thus when the romantic streets of Paris were stained red, bloodshed, turmoil, and chaos suddenly felt a lot closer to home. Before, I sympathized; now, I empathize.
I have no plans to retreat home at this time and my friends are continuing with their planned trip to Paris next week. Still, with every depressing headline I read in the media, every guard I see stationed outside the metro, every suspicious glance I see directed at fellow passengers on the train, it’s easy to get swept up by the fear. That’s why I like to talk about it with people so much – it makes me feel like I’m not alone, that none of us are. And the world is considerably a less scary place when you know that you are not alone.