In light of everything going on in the world, from the chess game of world conflict in Syria, to the explosive fears generated from rhetoric in the media, and bombs in the streets, I wanted to make a point of writing from a perspective that really pushes the boundaries of what we think about as safe, interesting and acceptable.
At the time of this writing, I’ve written pretty extensively about Cuba and I will return to the topic to continue on to the things I’ve left out until this point. If you haven’t read it yet, the thesis of the entire blog is simply: The world is not as scary as we are taught, and the core of each country is made up of people. This entire blog hopes to tie together this main idea into its very fabric.
During the month I wrote this, the world saw two major things happen. One, a new bombing tragedy in Brussels, Belgium. Two, a new bombing tragedy in Ankara, Turkey. One of them was widespread, wall-to-wall, 24/7 media coverage. The other got a few mentions online, and to my knowledge, minimal attention other than “well, wait, why aren’t we talking about this?” The questioning was quickly drowned out once Brussels was attacked.
Both are tragic, as are the attacks in Beirut and other cities around the world this month, and many attempts at explaining why we don’t talk about other tragedies in other cities have been touched on, but never mainstream. I could go political and technical, and I still might. However, first, let’s start with the people and how all of this affects them.
My Perspective from the Ground, and Where My Words Come From
Now, with my bachelors, I’ve studied terrorism pretty extensively – it is political science of the 21st Century, after all. My only first-hand experience with terrorism is my memories of 9/11 as experienced from Rochester, New York, and my travels through Europe in January 2015.
I was six years old for 9/11, and I’m not going to try to pretend I remember much more than being scared. Nothing unusual, and no real reason to zero in on this event as so many people want to do 15 years later.
However, in January 2015 I was 21 years old, and traveling around Europe. The West was a decade and a half into the War on Terror, invading and transforming half a dozen countries in that time period. And mind you, those are just the countries that we purposefully were tinkering with – the entire world changed with this Western foreign policy. That particular month Paris was rocked by the terrorist attacks of the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. Ignoring the side stories that Charlie Hebdo was known to be controversial, and violated aspects of Islam, the city was viciously attacked and put into a fearful vice.
Thankfully, I wasn’t in Paris at the time of the attack. We had left for the southern border of France and Switzerland a few days before the attack. On our way back to our house one day, I received a text from home asking if we were okay, and informing us there had been an attack. Andre and I stepped into a bar to find a TV, and through my limited French, we learned what happened in Paris.
The men in the bar were understandably nervous, scared and gossiping on who, what, why and where – much like anyone would, and what the wall-to-wall media coverage would hammer home. Once the news began to repeat itself, we continued our journey to our beds that night, and life continued on. The next morning, I grabbed a newspaper at the train station on our way out. The phrase had been officially unleashed:
Our next moves were Istanbul, Turkey, to Tel-Aviv, Israel, and then Prague, Czech Republic. This covers about 2 weeks worth of travel, and throughout that entire time the “Je Suis Charlie” response had only grown.
1. Istanbul, Turkey
Turkey is an Islamic country, with respectable goals to keep their religion, and different sects, out of government. Bordering Syria, and often affected by terrorism themselves, the Muslim people of Turkey know all too well the dangers of radicalization, and what that means for the average Muslim.
Somewhere within the space of Charlie Hebdo, and us arriving in Istanbul, a local mall had been attacked in Istanbul. I honestly don’t remember the details at this point, and I’m not even really sure how to search for any. Which is kind of the point – I could easily track down or remember attacks in the West, but as soon as it becomes an Islamic country, it gets shady.
However, what I do remember, is entering that mall and the number of men with automatic weapons guarding it. I do remember the metal detectors, the searches and general fear of another attack.
I do remember all of our hosts defending themselves, insisting that not all Muslims were violent. They insisted that real Muslims, normal Muslims, denounce violent actions, because they go against the teachings of Allah and his prophets.
The humanity and desperation to educate us, to make us feel safer, and to defend their people from Western violence, as well as radicalism violence is not an atmosphere one forgets.
2. Tel-Aviv, Israel
Hey, in my defense, I totally interpreted this as a political cartoon all the way until writing this piece. To check myself, I Googled the phrase, and it turns out…
This is from a piece of literature that coincidentally was released the same day as the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The plot of the story follows the transformation of French politics to the point that a Muslim man becomes President of France, enacts sweeping changes to French laws, from the allowance of polygamy, arranged marriages and displays tendencies of expanding the European Union in the image of the old Roman Empire, with France at its lead.
While obviously fictional, and partially satirical, the timing and content of this book really highlights not only the power of the media to influence, but the underlying fears that people have of the West being infiltrated by Islam. When released, this book became an instant best seller.
At the same time in Europe, anti-Islam protests were rolling out all across the continent. The media was upping the ante on hating Muslims, displaying violent, and hateful commentary on a wall-to-wall basis for weeks. At the same time, the same media outlets displayed world leaders converging on Paris in solidarity.
The messages from the media become sharper, influencing the masses, to position the Western minds against the Islamic world.
3. Prague, Czech Republic
Speaking of anti-Islam protests, here is a bit of proof for the readers:
Many of the signs we were unable to read, but crossed out mosques and crossed out “Islam” was a fairly obvious sign. However, we weren’t completely sure, nor could we find anything on the news quickly enough to explain what was happening.
We had trekked our way up this hill in Prague, trying to figure out what the castle-looking thing on top was. It turns out, its the government complex, and the castle we saw from afar was the presidential palace. This castle had been the seat of power in Prague since the beginning of their empire, to the short control of Hitler, to the new democratic government.
Once this crowd assembled, men were making loud noises, and our curiosity was piqued, we started investigating. We didn’t really want to get sucked into a crowd, especially considering the generally negative atmosphere. However, I stuck to the edges, and started asking random people passing by if they spoke English. Not many did, until I finally found a police officer who could speak enough to understand my questioning. The exchange went, paraphrased, like this:
Me: “Sir, do you speak English?”
Officer: “Yes, what do you need?”
Me: “What is happening here? Is this protest? An announcement?”
Officer: “Protest. People are angry.”
Me: “Protest for what?”
Officer: “Islam. Islam is bad. Killers, bad men. Protest wants them gone.”
At that point, we pretty much hightailed it back to the city center and into our apartment. There was no way I was sticking around for an anti-group-of-billions-of-people protest. That sounded violent to me.
Why the Media is Dangerous
As I stated, my words come from both my studies and experiences like the ones above. All of these made it in the news in 2015, but were not headlines like we’re used to from terrorist attacks:
March 20, 2015 – 137 killed in Yemen
June 29, 2015 – another 35 in Yemen
October 10, 2015 – 97 killed in Turkey
November 12, 2015 – 43 killed in Beirut.
However, I bet anybody can conjure to minds the images from the Paris attack of November 13, 2015. For the Americans, this statement is probably even more true of the San Bernardino shootings of December 2, 2015. Those ones are STILL in the mainstream news, thanks to the FBI and Apple feuding over the iPhones involved in the case.
How about the 35 killed in Turkey on March 15th, 2016? But, surely, the 34 killed in Brussels a week later is pretty obvious.
Two points are important here: One, I am not taking away from any of the tragedies that have taken place at home in the West. They are tragic, and my heart goes out to everyone directly affected, and those put in the same position as the rest of us, wondering when the next attack may strike. Two, I am not criticizing anyone’s ability to be informed. Anyone can be well-read, and it took me time to research the few non-Western attacks that I mentioned.
We can take many cases to the media, and ask them, “Why are you reporting like this? Where is your justice? Where is your equality? Who owns you, because this is bad?” Another one that sticks out to me is the race between Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton.
Yet, in the case of terrorism, the media is creating two separate dynamics that create one negative world atmosphere.
The first dynamic is the saturation of the news. What I mean by this, is the fact that the media will go wall-to-wall with a single topic, but not float in other topics while doing so. For example, when Paris was attacked, we had 24/7 coverage, a Facebook filter, and countless articles following how the victims were handling the fallout, how the terrorists were being dealt with and which world leaders were saying what. However, amongst all that noise was another attack in the Middle East, and a couple different important domestic stories, like the continuation of the presidential campaign or the water contamination in Flint, Michigan.
The saturation of the news with one story is an effect of sales, more often than not. One outlet is covering the story, so the other needs to be considered in the loop, and keep up. But it’s effect are two-fold.
For one, we become highly uninformed, because we cannot sort through the headline page for different topics. It’s the same topic over and over again.
Secondly, we become numb to anything that is “not like us.” Attacks in other parts of the world suddenly do not matter, because we do not have enough attention span left to spare for it.
The second dynamic is the natural positioning of the biases within the media. Again, I think of the presidential race. However, in the face of terrorism, the media is creating an “us versus them” atmosphere.
From what I could tell from my research, terrorist cells are actually harming more of their own in the Middle East, and in lands they want to control, than they are in the West. I never would have guessed that by our headline media coverage. If you rely solely on the headlines, you’ll walk away feeling exactly what so many Westerners are feeling – ISIS and other like-minded organization are out to get the West, only the West, and we must fight them.
But if information is presented that we are not their sole targets, doesn’t it seem a bit more like the world against them? Doesn’t our community of solace, of “Je Suis _____” expand?
What about when we consider factors that drone strikes, bombing campaigns and interference in local affairs? How do we feel every time the West is attacked? Countries that have seen the wrath of the Western military day in and day out for nearly two decades feel like that every day.
Presentation and information is key to understanding any situation. I’m never justifying violence, and I denounce all parties in the world who engage in it. However, it is worth questioning perspectives.
Travel has done that for me. When you’re spending time around the world, with people unlike your peers at home, and they’re explaining how their lives are lived in the same fears, the same need to preserve their way of lives, something inside you begins to wonder, “Why do we see each other as equals?”
Turkey was a huge turning point in my questioning media biases towards terrorism, and it only became more and more defined as the same questions kept popping up in more obscure spots, without my having been informed from home.
While the media is currently positioning the West against the rest of the world, I’d just like to re-introduce the idea that we are all going through the same things. We all want our families safe, educated and happy, free of violence. Be careful of positioning yourself against too big of a group – the violent, the evil and those out to disrupt our daily lives are much smaller than those trying to keep food on the table after violence visited their neighborhood.