It was one of those conversations that changed everything.
Watching a hockey game from a luxury box in Tampa Bay in late 2014, I asked the two Pakistani guys from a group I was hosting a simple question:
Why does it seem to guys like me that countries like yours seem to have a lax attitude towards terrorism?
I can’t remember which one answered it, Asif or Adnan, but the answer was swift and chilling.
“You don’t understand terrorism.”
And the other said something like “when was the last time your drive home was impacted by a car bomb.”
It was the beginning of a long conversation that ended up lasting several days. As open minded as I’d like to think I am, my perspective on that part of the world was definitely one of “why can’t you all get your sh** together.”
But their answer that night was a bit like being hit by a two-by-four. And two days later, it was further driven home.
Walking into breakfast on the second last day of their trip, both the Pakistani and Indian delegations looked down. Something wasn’t right. Turns out, a suicide bomber had just struck the daily celebration held at the famous border crossing at Wagah, killing 60 and injuring over 100.
Wagah was one of the few places where both Pakistan and India celebrated their heritage together. Yet, that attack barely made a blip on the news. A month after my new friends returned home, a group of terrorists stormed a school in rural Pakistan, killing 132 kids and 141 total. Again, hardly a mention.
Terrorists murder people with the goal of changing behavior — to force others to give in, to give up, to cower in fear. For my friend Asif, the journalist, he has to decide how much he can cover it, and how much he has to self-censor. That is his reality.
It is so easy to view these atrocities as us vs. them, with them being some amorphous collection of people over there. Events like the murders in California, or the attacks of Paris and now Brussels shock our collective conscious, because they disrupt the peaceful order. But what about those people who live in places where that peaceful order doesn’t exist?
This isn’t a once a year or once every few months kind of thing. For them, this is a fight they deal with daily, all while trying to do the things the rest of us do: go to work, take care of family, and do their part for civil society.
I am sure of one thing: all of the people now fleeing places like Syria, Egypt, Burma, the DRC, Nigeria and so many other places — they’d rather not be fleeing. The porter who helped me in the Johannesburg airport was formerly a lawyer in Kinshasa. You think that guy wants to be carrying bags for an American in South Africa? But that life was better than living in fear.
Again Monday morning, we all were punched in the throat by terrorism. I immediately thought of a Belgian I met over Twitter via some good-natured World Cup trash talk. Were she and her husband OK?
Not again, all of us collectively thought. Then someone tweeted that it was important to remember that when we say “We are Paris” or “We are Brussels” to remember that must also be “We are Beruit” and “We are Ankara.” It struck a chord with me.
I was in Africa the night of the Paris attacks. I knew at least one person in Paris at the time, so my first reaction was to grab the laptop and check twitter/facebook for updates. One of the first pictures I saw on Facebook was from one of my Pakistani friends, who had changed his profile picture “Prayers for Paris.” It had many, many, many likes and comments. Yes, we are all in this together — even “those” people “over there.”
This is not a fight we are going to win overnight. We must eliminate terrorism not just so we can enjoy peace, but so that everyone everywhere who just wants to work hard and play by the rules can do just that.
And to achieve that goal, we need the media to shine a light on the bad, not only in Europe, but the bad around the world — and shine a light on the good – those nameless, faceless heroes who fight on, in the face of those who want us to fear.
Nothing will break the back of terrorism more than the collective will of those refusing to bend to their wishes. It is going to take not some of us, but all of us, to win this battle.
We are Paris. We are San Bernardino. We are Peshwar. We are N’djamena. We are Ouagadougou. We are Garissa. We are Ankara. We are Wagah. And yes today, We are all Brussels.
Steven Schale is a Florida-based political, communications and government-relations strategist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Column courtesy of Context Florida.