When our regularly scheduled programming was disrupted and it was announced that the President would be making a national statement in the spring of 2011, I was terrified that I would not be allowed to travel back to the United Kingdom to finish my first year of University. I felt myself become anxious, nervous, and irritated while I waited for word from the White House as to what global event needed to be addressed this evening to the American public. I thought it was a terrorist attack because, like all millennials, from an early age I learned from the 9/11 attacks that over the next decade terrorist and hostile political affiliations would continue to relentlessly bombard my newscasts. And when President Obama took to the stage and took the moment to give news that Osama bin Laden had been captured and killed in Pakistan, the news created worry that my parents would refuse to let me travel back over the ocean—though I still was cautious to board a plane when the time came to leave.
When I finished my Bachelor’s degree and was trying to move to London, I was searching through neighborhoods and communities looking for the cheapest rent in the most expensive city in the world. Around that time the tragic death of Lee Rigby occurred making it clear that Woolwich was no longer a location option. We listened and watched the news broadcast with horror but with little regard for the proximity of the attack. Where we were, an hour outside the city of London, could have easily been another planet. My friends and I were in University. We’d be graduating in a few weeks with our whole lives out ahead of us that couldn’t be interrupted by violence or another act of terrorism.
They spoke about building statues in memorial at Woolwich and the younger generations carried on. Tensions were rising in Syria where the government was acting aloof and above real coverage of the disasters that were occurring at Europe’s doorstep. I changed travel plans to avoid a conflict in Syria that at the time I didn’t understand and didn’t feel a need to be part of. I had no concept of the refugees who were fleeing their homes, or the women and children drowning in the sea to escape the horrors in their home country. As someone who had normally been abreast of political and international news, in between completing my dissertation and getting a promotion at work I had, like many of us, become trapped in my own priorities instead of paying attention to the world around us.
Working in Central London in Waterloo Station, it’s easy to be distracted by the overhead screens displaying SkyNews on repeat. The information newspapers distributed nightly only represented a fraction of the situation at hand and sensationalized threats of terror to prove the matter had escalated. I watched as Jihad John captured, tortured and executed aid workers while promoting a message of unspeakable violence. When a woman was beheaded in Edmonton in the fall of 2014, multiple members of staff came in shocked and disturbed. Now the individual responsible has been cleared of murder on the grounds of insanity, claiming he saw demons and suffered a dissociation from reality which led to him murdering an innocent woman near her home.
At the time no one knew if this was another planned attack on Western civilization to promote an agenda that is unconcerned with humanity and only focused on creating fear. As the only American on staff, another team member who was Muslim came over to me and nervously tried to explain that her religion and faith played no part in the crime, and that this horror was not part of the belief system she ascribed to. I could tell she was worried that my country and the Islamophobia—seems to penetrate any conversation about how we can all work together to stop innocent lives from being destroyed—would have an affect on how I saw her as an individual. I was saddened that she felt so much shame and fear that she would be viewed differently by a specific group that represented themselves as tyrants and proud of their killings.
I walked home in the broad daylight and felt scared that a man with a machete could appear at any moment. Would this incident lead to similar events in the coming days and the coming weeks? It was both absurd to imagine and incomprehensible that such acts could eventually become a living reality. Even worse was the fact that there were countries living with this anxiety where their neighbors, friends, and family were scarce.
With my job in the busiest railway for commuting passengers, we received multiple bomb scares and threats daily. We would be contacted by security personnel to search our tiny premises for explosive devices behind bars of soap and skincare. Alarms would sound frequently alerting passengers to continue with their travels, yet also stating coded messages alerting the station staff that suspicious activity was being intercepted. For the first time I could see armed guards patrolling St.Pancras International Station, where the sight of an officer with a gun in Britain is both rare and startling.
There were mountains of factors and reasons why I ultimately chose to leave the United Kingdom and come back to the United States. I would be foolish though to believe that the very real threat of an imminent attack played no part in the decision. While I feel just as unsafe here around my own countrymen who wield guns with decisiveness and vigilance, I was concerned that I might not see family and loved ones before the situation escalated to a point where I might not so easily be able to travel back. While I yearn to go back, I would never want to deny the refugees or immigrants who are suffering and fighting for their lives the chance to flee from the crisis at hand simply because I prefer the English way of life.
The shootings in San Bernardino occurred just weeks before I planned to move to the West Coast. While some have insisted that the shooters were not prompted by foreign groups or ISIS, the President clearly defined it as act of terrorism. I felt differently than I had before. It may have been an act of terrorism, but in America we are killing each other every day in the name of our right to bear arms. The two issues blurred and blended until it was difficult to categorize and separate the effect one perspective had on the other. No one seems to know if the apathy we are experiencing stems from how comfortable we have become watching civilians die in the name of our right to bear arms or if we should be roused into action by the potential affect ISIS could have from within the United States.
A friend of mine knows a young man in Syria who is struggling every day, every hour to survive a terror that seems inescapable. He keeps contact with him to ensure that someone is constantly aware of his safety and survival. The day of the San Bernardino shootings he spoke to his Syrian friend and this young man, who faces these atrocities from sun up till sundown, was terrified for not only the men and women in the San Bernardino area but for the American people as a whole. What does that say about how our desensitization has permeated our ideas of the world and the international front, when the foreign public are more concerned for our safety—and the direction society is heading—and we can’t even muster the energy to examine our own responsibilities?
Why don’t we examine responsibility to give all people a chance and opportunity no matter where they come from, especially when they are seeking above all safety? And what about our responsibility to revise our government and culture to understand that our privilege to defend ourselves is not a blanket where we can excuse the unspeakable? Why can’t we reevaluate the blame and ignorance we enforce in daily interactions that is no longer a freedom of speech but hate speech pure and simple? I’m tired of feeling scared and intimidated by threats from terrorists. I’m tired of accepting that Constitutional liberties are not up for debate or revisement. I no longer want to be forced into a corner, in any country, and asked to make decisions based on how all acts of terrorism will define my tomorrow.