Paris and Thoughts on Fear and Risk

2 years ago

I have two fundamental concerns: what is safe, and what is the appropriate response to terrorism.

About safety, I believe this is an isolated incident. Tomorrow Paris will be no more dangerous than it was the day before that terrible Friday the 13th. I also believe that security in Paris and throughout Europe will be heightened in response to this attack. Remember: There's an important difference between fear and risk.

About the right response to terrorism, I believe we owe it to the victims of this act not to let the terrorist win by being terrorized. That’s exactly the response they are hoping for. Sure, it’s natural for our emotions to get the best of us. But, especially given the impact of sensational media coverage, we need to respond intelligently and rationally.
. . .
Again, our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Paris, the victims, and their loved ones. And it remains my firmly held belief that the best way for Americans to fight terrorism is to keep on traveling.

--Rick Steves, well-known travel writer, on Facebook November 14, 2015

Photo credit: Pixabay

I started writing this blog post last week in response to an exchange student’s fear of a big earthquake hitting the Pacific Northwest. There’s been quite a bit of media coverage of the overdue "big one” in the past few months, and the exchange student was worried. Maybe he should go home where he would be safe, he asked.

I was ready to write about how preparation can reduce one’s fear of “bad things happening.” Being scared of earthquakes isn’t exactly irrational. They can, after all, be pretty dangerous. They are perhaps even scarier to those who are not used accustomed to the risk. In the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been hearing a lot lately about the Cascadia fault line and the possibilities of a major quake sometime soon-ish. For our students, overcoming fear and being prepared for the possibility of natural disasters adds another challenge to the list of those they face being teenagers far away from home, in a foreign country, speaking a language in which they are not quite fluent.

Those thoughts went out the window on Friday, disappearing into the distance in Paris.

Paris wasn’t alone in “bad things happening” in recent days. A bombing in Beirut on Thursday in a busy shopping area killed more than 40 people and caused more than 200 injuries. Two attacks in Baghdad killed 26 people. An earthquake in Japan triggered a small tsunami; there were no immediate reports of major damage or injuries, but it certainly brought back memories of the larger, much more disastrous earthquake in Japan four years ago.

Since Friday, I have seen criticisms in social media about how much the media is focusing on Paris, yet not on Beirut, Baghdad, or Japan. A comment that stuck with me is from the Facebook and Twitter pages of Karuna Ezara Parikh, a print journalist, television anchor, and model:

I woke this morning deeply disturbed by the news from #Paris, but more amazed by the attention it received on social media. I understand Paris is a beloved and familiar space for a lot of people, but it troubled me that #Beirut, a city my father grew up in, had received so little attention after the horrific bombings two days earlier. It also troubled me that #Baghdad, a place I have absolutely no connection with, received even less attention after the senseless bombing that took place there last week. Worst of all, I found the understanding of the refugee crisis skewed and simplistic. If you've been following the journeys of the people leaving their homes around the world right now, perhaps you'll understand why the words #SyrianRefugeeCrisis are just as devastating as #PrayForParis. It's time to pray for humanity. It is time to make all places beloved. It's time to pray for the world.

I agree with the sentiments and points raised. We should be outraged at a bombing in Beirut or Baghdad and we should be asking if everyone in Japan is alright. Indeed, many people are. At the same time, I can see why Paris hits home for many people. Paris, the “city of light,” represents something other than war and “bad things.” It represents a romantic place where bad things don’t happen. It represents the world we would like to have, rather than the world we really have.

The world we have has earthquakes and bombs. I can tell – and did tell – the teenager who was worried about earthquakes that there are things he and other exchange students can do to reduce their fears. Their local exchange program coordinators can help. We can encourage them to learn about the phenomenon of earthquakes and whether it’s a risk in the community where they live. We can help them prepare in small ways, by having an exit plan out of the house, and by having some key items in a “go bag.” The solution isn’t any different from the solution for overcoming other kinds of fear: education.

I find it much more difficult to answer questions about events like the bombings in Beirut or Baghdad or the violence in Paris. How far does educating oneself about the risk help in these situations?

In the aftermath of this tragedy, we all need to figure out how to move forward. Should we give up on traveling because something might happen? I would say absolutely not. If you stay home, perhaps you won’t suffer from things that could go wrong. But bad things can happen anywhere, at any time, a lesson brought home only too clearly yesterday. If you stay home, you won’t meet people who could change your life, or see wonders that could affect how you view the world -- or learn about other cultures and customs, which could help prevent future “bad things” from happening.

A fact about ordinary life: the chance of being killed in a car accident is far greater than of being shot. But that doesn’t stop us from getting into cars or crossing the street. It's different, to be sure. But the point is that life does go on. The best answer to the violence we have seen is to make sure that life does, in fact, go on. We cannot, and should not hide. 

Photo credit Pixabay. This blog post appeared on my blog, The Exchange Mom, on November 14, 2015. 
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