I’ve had a few “that could have been us” moments recently.
I was supposed to fly in to Brussels for the study abroad program I’m doing this summer with Georgia Tech. That is, before the bombings. I’d be very close to Paris, where the coordinated attacks happened last November. I even took a weekend trip to Istanbul, where there were bombings in the international terminal at the airport where I was two weeks before. None of those really hit home.
Then, one weekend, when I was halfway across the world in Prague, I learned about the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando. I could not stop crying for the next few days. Despite being the furthest of these incidents from me, it was the one that shook me the most. It went from “that could have been us” to “that WAS us.” Being a gay man, the LGBT clubs are the one place I’ve always felt secure in being myself. Safe to just exist.
Fast forward to Bastille Day. Sitting on a beach, feeling the warm ocean breeze while watching fireworks for the national celebration, exchanging flirty looks with a cute Australian. The fireworks end, and everyone picks themselves off the beach and gathers on the promenade to decide their next moves: bars, cafes, anywhere with friends. That’s when we see 4 police cars speed past us, going way too fast for a crowded pedestrian area.
Something feels wrong. We look in the direction the cars are going and see everyone on the entire promenade, thousands of people, are running. Not running around, but towards us. My first thought goes to how dangerous it would be to be caught up in this stampede. We could be trampled.
I’m not sure which one of the people I was with said it, but we started running. Everyone seems nervous and we think we hear shots, but they may be fireworks from other shows.
We go past a policeman, and people are trying to ask what is happening. All he says is “Allez, allez vite!” (Go, quickly!) and points in the direction we are running.
I should be scared, but I ask a girl in the group to pour some more wine for our run, as if we were going on a leisurely walk. She obliges.
We eventually decide to go back to the apartment of that Aussie from the beach, and slowly get in news reports. Everyone was pretty shaken up. I was trying to keep the mood light, but slowly running out of puns and wine.
I’m not sure why, but the events still haven’t really shaken me like they did the people in that apartment with me. Maybe I’m numb from being close to dying a few times? Maybe I cried myself out after Orlando? Maybe I just haven’t lost anyone yet.
Nevertheless, in all the interviews I did afterwards, the reporter would ask “And how does this change how you feel about traveling more?” and I start with, completely honestly, “Not much.”
There is no way to remove the danger of dying unless you just stay home, and – in what my Aussie friend said is the most American way of putting it – if we do that, the terrorists win.
Of course we need to be smart, vigilant, and safe. Of course we need to increase security. Of course we need to mourn our dead and reflect. But we don’t need to cower in fear, make our loved ones stay home out of terror, or stop living our lives because of it.