These days, major terrorist events might only make the news for a few days, or only hours. Consider the last several weeks: Tel Aviv, Orlando, Istanbul, Bangladesh and Baghdad. We are flooded with an unprecedented amount of disturbing imagery, and in many corners of the world, people have become immune to the harshness of death and distrust.
As a global activist and challenger of the status quo, I too have occasionally caught myself mirroring this numbness. The numbness is not caused by callousness or indifference, but from the sheer intensity and overwhelming nature of such events.
The flood of our collective anxiety makes it all the more important for us to examine and shift our perspectives and really try to see and understand what is happening around us and how we react to these events. I have developed a heightened awareness of the need for bolder, dynamic approaches for analyzing the impact of terrorism and have come to understand this through the experience of my work and extensive travel, of residing for years in Italy, and in being in Rome during the recent attack on the Istanbul airport, and when Paris was under siege in November 2015, and again this past March when Brussels born residents recruited by the so-called Islamic State attacked their own city.
There are obvious impacts; death, national mourning, and the realization that security standards are not the same everywhere. The Schengen Agreement of 1995 has led to failures in the intelligence and information sharing efforts and in securing borders, and is also causing obstacles in tracking the flow of money used to finance these attacks. Terrorism changes the world, not only in terms of what it destroys, but also for what it creates; fear, anxiety, new habits and patterns of thinking. The last decade has brought a major shift in how nations prioritize issues of domestic and international security.
The world is now measured by the levels of risk and security felt in any given place. These parameters are naturally shifting with the constantly changing events, and the rapidity of change is creating more instability and uncertainty. Up until the past year, countries such as France and Belgium were considered low risk countries and even though they had known terror cells, they were under the false impression that allowing high risk suspects to live and travel in and out of their countries without intervention would somehow keep them from harm’s way. Brussels, in particular, has had a long history of poor security and serving as a safe haven for terrorists. Now, they must implement newer, stronger measures in the hopes of keeping their cities safe from future threats.
These societies are also now creating processes to reassure their citizens by establishing political structures such as border protection, monitoring, and increased surveillance. These enhanced security measures carry a broader set of concerns that may actually pose risks to constitutional liberties and personal freedom, leaving us with the challenge of how to identify limitations, determine sufficient protections and somehow maintain democracy in the process of grappling with our basic security.
Fear and apprehension remain prevalent, despite increased security, and this brings along additional actions and behaviors. These changes may be more subtle, but they impact our lives and our emotions on a daily basis. Residents and tourists of victimized cities think twice about taking public transportation, whether to visit Europe, or attend sporting events such as this month’s soccer championships in France and parents feel a newfound anxiety when dropping their toddlers off at school. Much of Western Europe has experienced these significant shifts, especially in the last few years, since major cities have endured the trauma of radical violence. As a result, days like November 13, 2015 in Paris, March 22, 2016 in Belgium and June 28 in Istanbul have cast a wide shadow of uncertainty over people and systems long considered safe and reliable.
As a frequent traveler to Israel, I experience a bold contrast of how a society that is accustomed to the frequent threat of terror manages its daily life. Of course, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and has an entirely different history than the EU member countries. Many years of very thoughtful and stringent measures have been implemented and enhanced to create a society that, for the most part, is quite safe. Community fears are managed by these advanced systems, including high surveillance, border controls, and limitations on internet access and capabilities. In addition, most citizens serve in the military, giving the majority some level of expertise in self defense and safety management. Citizens are used to living with these measures and don’t see them as infringements on their freedom, but instead as a necessity to their security.
Israel’s extensive experience at managing major threats to security has started to attract more respect and attention from the international community which is a significant development for the often-blacklisted Jewish state.
When I was in Tel Aviv in March, I met with a retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice who told me he had recently been asked to speak in Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights. This court has been bound by the convention of human rights established in 1950 and in the recent past, they have repeatedly criticized Israel. This man’s assistance would have been dismissed a year ago, but he has now become an expert to 47 judges of the 47 different member states, to instruct them on how to deal with the topic of human rights and terrorism and on how to find balance between security and normalcy.
My second home of Rome, Italy, shares some of Israel’s characteristics. Historically, Italy has had a culture of self-protection, and has been long accustomed to surveillance, in light of the timeless presence of mafia throughout the country. Israel and Italy are in many ways divided societies, but those divisions occur for different reasons. Israel is a realized dream and a victim of its own success while Italy has been, up until now, a victim of its own resistance to fight internal corruption and conform to rules it has been repeatedly asked to abide by as a member of the EU.
Italy has long had systems of infrastructure in place to control and apprehend politically motivated domestic terrorism, which it has dealt with continuously, prior to and after the Red Brigades in the 1970’s. These systems have been very useful in dealing with the potential threat of international terrorism and most Italian citizens feel sheltered from the possibility of an outside attack even though they know the threat exists. Immigration into Italy in recent years has been primarily controlled by mafia clans and surveillance programs which, for the most part, keep track of the location of migrants. This factor has made terrorist collaborators easier to locate, leading to recent arrests. In addition, The Vatican has implemented added highly visible security throughout the Eternal City. Despite all of this, Italians are also used to a high standard of living, a passion for life and going around rules to get things accomplished. Ironically, there is worry that EU measures trying to force Italy to conform to their standards and rules against corruption could potentially put the country at a higher security risk in dealing with terror threats.
These examples demonstrate that as we work against the destructive influences of terrorism, it is vitally important that we explore and develop a new consciousness of what terrorism is actually creating and how we can rise above the fear to engage with better support systems, and elevated human interaction. Recently, I told a shared with a friend that I feel safer flying the day after an incident, assuming the terrorists and their followers will give the world some time to showcase their work, thus making the day-after safer. There is an unfortunate irony in this which really goes to the heart of the issue. We must not allow the threat of terror to dictate our daily lives and we must find ways to create new and better patterns that maintain personal security, protect individual freedom, and provide a clear and determined strategy for fighting back against the inevitability of fear and intolerance.
We live in an era where danger is becoming more and more commonplace, and the trauma caused by this changes our daily lives. In recognition of this reality, these same disruptive events also beckon us to rise above, to promote healing in the aftermath of terror, and to move forward to provide inspiration and hope. Terror requires us to bet our survival on our own collective strong willed desire to be vigilant and safe. Ultimately we need to succeed in bringing out the best in all of us and assuring the methods of fear do not build walls around our hearts and minds.
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