My streak is broken, the resolution shattered. But, truthfully and honestly, I’ve been in no mood. Few things highlight the frivolity of a travel blog like an actual international tragedy. And as the details tweeted their way across the Atlantic I recoiled in the same horror as many Americans.
This post has nothing to do with travel.
The echoes of 9/11 still rattle about my brain. And living in what is clearly a target city, there’s always an edge. To be brutally upfront, rare is the day that I don’t look at someone suspiciously. My spider sense is always set to light tingle. Still though, I go about my day…not ignorant of the threats, but also not imprisoned by the possibilities.
A little more than a year ago I watched a guy get held up at gunpoint in the courtyard of my apartment building. For a moment, I was paralyzed. My brain couldn’t comprehend what my eyes were seeing, what my ears where hearing. That moment felt like an eternity as I let out a shout while calling 911. The robber fled, running and hopping into a car that sped away. The police arrived quickly, but, as far as I know, there was never an arrest.
I live on a very safe street by any metric. But, for months, I was hyper-vigilant as I walked to and from the Metro or my car. It wasn’t a good feeling, it was an anxious feeling. It was like surfing a wave, but never being able to stand. The irony in situations like this is that the best way to feel secure, to feel safe…but also to live, is to acknowledge that risk is a part of life. And the more you try to control that risk, the less you live. (you can take that surfing analogy wherever it leads you)
I’ve been deep in thought through this weekend, which has dissuaded me from writing…thankfully. If I had written Friday night, it would have been angry and caustic and it would have added nothing to the conversation. Through Saturday and Sunday I found myself vacillating between turn-the-other-cheek pacifism and eye-for-an-eye hawkism.
I’ve been to Paris, and like 99 percent of humanity I love Paris. But, it’s deeper than that. There are Parisian bits of DNA woven into the genetic fabric of our own republic. The District of Columbia stands as a civic monument to the beauty of Parisian design. Names like L’Enfant and Lafayette and Rochambeau grace our landmarks, our Metro stations and our maps. We are a child of many nations, but few have left an imprint as indelible as France.
Further, this is a continued assault on the path to Enlightenment, a movement birthed in Paris and London that hatched into a great experiment of democracy on this side of the Atlantic. It’s the notion that we don’t need kings or queens, popes or caliphs to direct our nations, to determine our rights and our fates.
And, that, perhaps is what’s most gut-wrenching of all about this latest string of barbarism…it has unleashed a reaction that is vile and antithetical to what we should stand for. America should be a grand symbol of hope, not an island of exclusion. The scourge isn’t defeated with bombs and bullets and brimfire. Those methods are but fuel to their message, proof to the fence-sitters that the West will only be satisfied with the erasure of Islam.
Our most powerful ammunition comes in the form of ideas and ideals. This, not force, is the hallmark of a Western democracy. And our ideals dictate that we should welcome all who seek asylum. That we should elevate the great swaths of humanity clothed in poverty to a life of hope and aspiration. These ideals are hard to achieve. It’s easy to shock and awe and believe that the scourge has been eradicated. It’s hard to realize that the scourge doesn’t exist as a matter of geography, but rather as a state of mind.
This is not about religion.
This is about economics and a culture of dominance.
There have been many who have made the case that religion itself should be banished. That idea is almost as stupid as those calling for a carpet-bombing campaign of the Middle East. Religion is but a tool. When used fairly and wisely it provides meaning and purpose, it motivates and inspires. It brings about the best in humanity. When mishandled it’s evil and ruthless, robbing us of character and instinct. It disenfranchises and it excludes. It brings about the worst in humanity.
So yeah, getting rid of religion is an idea. But the next logical step is the abandonment of degrees of reason, the limitation of colors along the spectrum of understanding. Next you have to get rid of political parties, and then state boundaries, and then national boundaries, the list is practically infinite. Getting rid of religion is a silly, simplistic idea…almost as silly and simplistic as insisting that everyone follow the same religion.
Silly is the wrong word.
Extreme is the right word.
And if there’s any single word that needs to be uttered less these days…it’s “extreme.”
I’m not going to debate military policy or strategy. I’m not going to defend the president, nor am I going to attack him. I’m not going to pretend that I have a clue how to fix any of this. But, I will say this: we all have a responsibility to right this ship, and more importantly we all have the ability to right this ship.
In the weeks leading up to Pope Francis’ visit to D.C. I spent a lot of time with volunteers, documenting their efforts to welcome their religious leader. I remember talking to one volunteer, his name was Chris, as he unloaded crates of food from a truck prepared for a line of homeless and hungry stretching down the block. I asked him why he volunteered every Wednesday night to take three hours from his life to help strangers. His answer still resonates with me.
He didn’t say his priest told him to, or that the pope told him to, or that Jesus told him to. He looked at me and said:
“There’s just so much happening in the world, so much negativity…but this, here, is my corner. And if I can change just my little corner for the better, than I’ve done good.”
There is power in those words.
Weeks before that, I sat in the balcony of the Metropolitan AME church in downtown D.C., and I watched as a woman who knew several of the nine killed in Charleston pray for their murderer, just hours after that homicidal spree.
That had power.
Like Thor’s-hammer-to-the-heart-and-mind power.
I’m not saying that we ignore the Middle East or just outright forgive the scourge. But, instead of succumbing to our base human desire for violence and vengeance, maybe we instead try something different.
Ron Fournier at the National Journal floated an interesting idea: Mandatory service for every U.S. citizen. I know, it’s not a new idea, but it’s interesting in this context. Essentially, that by putting everyone in a position to serve, individuals are engaged with ideas and environments different than their own. Which makes them more aware and, ultimately, more enlightened citizens.
I’d take this a step further, lets slash the defense budget by 40 percent (relax, we’d still spend more on defense than any other nation) and throw the remainder into this new program. That’d be more than enough money to put teachers in every school, workers to rebuild our infrastructure, and ambassadors to raise up the poorest parts of the world.
Even without such a program, why can’t we dedicate ourselves to service? Why not find avenues for our energies to push someone else forward? Let us react to senseless violence by individually performing sensible acts of good, showing that that nation, and any nation so conceived, shall long endure.
What better way to combat hate?
It’s better than the alternative of yet another massive land invasion of the Middle East. We’ve tried that…a lot. And as far as I know, it’s never really worked out.
This is not naïveté.
It’s a faith in reason and a conviction to ideals. It’s following the true path that the best of our founding fathers envisioned. That we be world leaders, not through conquest, but by example.
(your regularly scheduled travel blog will return tomorrow)