Re: Paris, Terrorism, and My Thoughts

In response to recent events in Europe, specifically Paris:

Before I begin, terrorism itself. As an international studies major, I am part of a culture that is constantly trying to define, compartmentalize, and solve the inner workings of the world. Albeit, usually in a failed attempt, it is under the desire to perfect our world and the workings of our inescapably, interlinked societies. Personally, I like definitions and explanations that give me a base of understanding, so I will describe what I think to be the most accurate definition of terrorism; it is worth noting that there is no universally accepted definition, and by its nature, it is an amorphic entity. An International Relations theorist/academic, Hoffman, once said that terrorism is “the deliberate creation and exploitation of fear through violence or the threat of violence in pursuit of political change.” Security checks, safety procedures, locked doors, reporting suspicious activity, the simple changes of our daily lives is the goal of a terrorist. I do not suggest that we ignore these activities nor let our guard down, but simply put we cannot and will not live in fear.

 

In the wake of Paris there have been many emotions felt around the world: fear, anxiety, anger, sympathy, empathy, confusion. There are three items that I would like to address in response to the attacks in Paris. The first is the question looming: why? No one can ever understand what truly compels a terrorist to do what they do, however we should understand this: around the globe, specifically Iraq and Syria, there are generations growing up in poverty, violence, and absolute despair. Conditions that many of us will never understand. These same generations are being exposed to the by-product of hundreds of years of Islamic extremism (never to be confused with the religion of Islam itself), intractable violence, and manipulative media. The most destructive by-product today being, the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL)[1]. The incentive to join these fanatic groups is far too great because of the conditions they live in, through a process of brainwashing their minds are turned toward the destruction of the west. ISIL’s desire to reach statehood combined with its predecessor’s, Al Qaeda, desire to topple “the west” has taken the form of strategic “terrorist” attacks. These attacks, such as Paris, are part of their political objective: weaken the west, build their state, and eliminate the west. To put it more simply, think about the Americans in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh did not have to defeat the American military in confrontational war to win, he just had to manipulate the hearts and minds of the American people. Before I digress further, the actions of France in conjunction with EU and other Global members against ISIL in Syria made France among the targets of ISIL. ISIL’s goal: kill “westerners,” inflict terror, intimidate them to stop pressure on creation of Islamic State, continue violence on the West as they pursue their rise to power and eventual global caliphate. To understand this conflict more I would highly recommend further research of the ancient developments of Wahhabism, Al-Qaeda, ISIL, the current conflict in Syria, and French involvement in counter-terrorism.

Second, I would like to address the public’s response to the Paris attacks. Primarily, I applaud it. The overwhelming global support for Paris and France in wake of this violence has been overwhelming. In a most basic sense, the world has rallied together to condemn this violence and support a fellow member of the global community. However there is also a contingency that feels the response to Paris was a response plagued by ignorance, an ignorance that fails to see the daily terrorism and disasters that strike places around the world. Places that do not receive media coverage, Facebook filters, prayers, or attention when they too are in suffering. To the people who are angry with this, I agree. I agree that the world is not equal in its condolences, thoughts, and prayers. I agree that far too often people are like sheep and they are heavily influenced by the thoughts of others and the bias of the media. However, where I do not agree is using Paris as the medium to discuss this discontent. There is a time for mourning, a time for thought, and a time for action. If you are American, I highly doubt that in the wake of 9/11 you were thinking of terrorist attacks in Israel/Palestine, Southeast Asia, or the North Caucasus and how the world was too blind in its coverage of such a disaster… My point is this: if you are upset about unequal attention to other issues of the world, you have every right to be, you have every right to express your opinion and educate others, and you have every right to champion the cause of those with smaller voices in the media. However, you can champion this issue and still allow people to pay their respects and offer their condolences at the time of the incident. There is a healthier way to express your opinion than to spawn conflict out of conflict.

Third, fighting terrorism is difficult. You are fighting an idea. It is the epitome of “someone else’s problem” becoming your problem. To the people that feel hopeless in the wake of this looming threat: here is your chance. Rally around our leaders and tell them that we demand action. Through efficacy we can make sure we have the right officials protecting our people and removing threats. Through service we can help other communities improve through education, development, and opportunity. The challenge is now ours, to find what we excel in and how we can use that as a tool for change.

As I conclude my semester’s studies in Brussels I continue to think about what I have truly learned from this experience and what I will return with to the United States. I have learned that the most valuable skill one can have is the ability to remove one’s self from how they see the world and look at it as someone else.

I leave you with this:

My thoughts and prayers go out to all that have suffered and continued to suffer acts of ignorant violence. I challenge those who are trying to comprehend these acts to treat every piece of information, every perspective, as one piece of a puzzle. Just because you like building your puzzle your way, doesn’t mean it is the only way to build it.

“For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing” – Simon Wiesenthal.

[1] I use the term ISIL over ISIS because ISIS is, generally speaking, an English mistranslation of the Arabic phrase Al-Dawla Al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, where al-Sham is characterized as “S” for Syria wherin reality the al-Sham region is best known in English as the region of “the Levant.” Hence: ISIL.

Managing Great Expectations, A Tale of Two (or more) Cities

One of the most coveted parts of studying abroad is travel: whether it’s mountaineering, jungles, beaches, ancient cities, or just the tiny winding streets of a bustling metropolis, everyone manages to find new places to explore. What we forget in all our ideas of travel is the how component: finances, traveling companions, or accommodations. For me, how is transportation. Trains, planes, and buses (I know, I really wanted to put automobiles there for the pop-culture reference as well), all seem to offer something different. Trains offer extensive passes that make using vast rail networks affordable and fun to use. For planes, there is the convenience of quick and immediate travel. Then for the truly adventurous souls there are the long bus rides through the countryside that offers eclectic crowds and cheap fares. For me, I chose the former, trains. And it was trains that have truly shaken me to core on what it means to be flexible.

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In the past few weeks I have learned that there are few certainties in traveling. Recently I traveled on a train home from Munich, Germany and a train (partway) to Nice, France. And what do Bavaria and the French Riviera have in common, you might ask? My misfortune.

While traveling home from Oktoberfest my train managed to breakdown at the station in Munich, its replacement arrived 30 minutes later… The time between trains at my connection in Cologne? 25 minutes… After realizing that was the only train back to Brussels that day, I managed to take 4 subsequent evening trains around rural Germany and Belgium to finally catch a midnight train back “home.” After two weeks to recover I boarded another train to Paris, with a connection to Nice, which just happened to coincide with rail strikes and the worst floods the French Riviera has had in decades. Courtesy of an unexpected 20 minute stop in the French countryside, my train arrived late at Gare de Nord in Paris and I was unable to make it to Gare de Lyon in time to catch the last train to Nice. Unfortunately there were no options around France to make it to Nice: Nice is conveniently a small town in Southern France that is hard to get to, was hit by floods and slowly reopened, and railroad strikes simultaneously plagued France and Northern Europe. While I laugh now at these experiences, I definitely took at least a few months off my life.

Flexibility. The buzzword of parenting, the guiding light of the workplace, and the universal doctrine of expats. It is the greatest mind game one can play (aside from doing planks and minesweeper).How far can you push your mind before it breaks. As a guy who loves a plan and back-up plans I struggle with the term flexibility. Prior to coming abroad, flexibility to me was the ability to change the plan to the back up plan on the fly. What I have learned, however, is that flexibility is not simply being able to change the plan but being able to accommodate for the “oh sh**” moments. It’s all about taking a deep breath, accepting that life isn’t in your favor at the moment and pushing forward.

Even Yoda had some “oh sh**” moments, he never really saw the whole Darth Vader thing coming…  Flexibility is saying, you know what, I may be stuck in rural Germany but there’s a McDonald’s and I’ll be ok. Flexibility is the combination of gratitude, a calm demeanor, and the ability to simply make something out of nothing. Of course you’re going to have your buttons pushed traveling, its uncomfortable to have to compartmentalize what you believe is necessary to enjoy your time somewhere, then be treated like cattle under the false pretense that you’re an explorer commandeering your method of transport, only to find out you will be late, tired, and unprepared. The thing is, nobody is prepared for all the ways travel plans can go wrong, but they should be prepared for how to make everything go right.

Life throws us curveballs and new environments, and we teach ourselves something new. There is always a new person to meet, an emotion to feel, and travel makes that possible. To those studying abroad: everyday you find out what you don’t know, but the shock is never supposed to eliminate what you already know. In Brussels, I am always on my toes. Whether it is a professor failing 30 out of 33 students on the midterm exam, the city being locked down for raids to find terrorists, getting stuck two towns away from home when the metro shuts down, or simply trying to figure out how to make a 20 euro bill turn into 9 euros worth of .50 cent coins. Breath, do your Zen thing and move on with it.

Traveling is a constantly evolving practice that lets humans live the nomadic adventure that we crave. Yogis, fruit leather, and Gumby are all flexible. But then again, they never missed the last train to Brussels from Cologne on a Sunday evening.