Thursday night, I boarded a plane from Sevilla to Paris. An old friend, Cole Fairbanks, who I had barely talked to since freshman year of High School sat down in front of me. If I did my math right, the odds of someone who grew up a half mile down the street from you boarding the same plane from Sevilla to Paris and sitting directly in front of you are about 1 in a million.
Friday night, my friends Colleen, Brooke and I went to a Turkish sandwich shop, grabbed a bottle of wine, and sat on the river on top of a playground watching the sun set over the Plaza de la Bastilla in Paris’ 11th district. We finished, and after a few weird encounters, boarded the metro headed home. Shortly after we arrived, I got a call from my mom. There had been a shooting in the 11th district, approximately 3 minutes from where we had dinner. What we initially thought must have been a conveniently close gang-related incident turned into one of the worst terrorist attacks the world has ever seen. My friend Cole, mentioned above, decided to eat dinner in the same area as us, but was about 30 minutes late. He found himself caught in the middle of five attacks, literally sprinting away from carnage.
Further, my roommate was in an Airbnb above the Eiffel Tower, a dangerously precarious location in the midst of such an attack. More, three of my closest friends were out on the town with dead phones, having not updated us in hours as to their whereabouts, leaving our imaginations running wild.
But we were all lucky. We were not among the victims. Quite the opposite, we ended the night in a beautiful Airbnb in Paris, safe and sound. We had food, we had Wi-Fi, and we had each other. In light of the attack, we are some of the luckiest people on earth. Had we been getting sandwiches 1 hour later, it may have been a different story. In a moment overwhelmed by both utter thanksgiving and broken-heartedness for the daughters and sons, mothers and fathers that are no more, I was struck by something: We act as if nothing really happened. The only frustration came in the form of spoiled weekend plans. I watched some of my friends throw actual temper tantrums because they had to stay inside Saturday. Those stupid terrorists ruined our weekend by shutting down the cool tourist attractions. How could they?
I found myself, minutes from a massacre, with more grace for the 15 year old ISIL suicide bomber than some of my American companions. But this is not a shot at my friends, or even Western tourists in general. In fact, I found myself, at moments throughout the weekend, feeling the same as my friends, leaving me with quite a realization:
Very little separates us, separates me, from the worst member of ISIL. We can all be pretty messed up sometimes. Certainly my heart breaks for every innocent person slayed. But my heart also breaks for the young boys who had been perverted into believing that their mission in life is to kill. Among the perpetrators of the attack were several teenagers. They are victims as much as they are murderers. Below is a picture I have downloaded and placed on my background; of little boys, about the age of my nephews, being trained by ISIL.
About one hour before the attacks, I made a new friend. As we struggled to order sandwiches from our Muslim Turkish cashier, in the 11th district, another man stepped up to translate. He asked our names, graciously dealt with our indecisiveness, and asked in sincerity about our lives back home. Then, we told him we were from the United States. With a guilty smile, he began to repeat the words “America, America” to himself quietly. He then looked up and revealed: “I’m Afghani”. Our Islam Afghani friend made our night a lot better. He also left us with some wisdom from his years living in Kabul, London, and Paris: “In every city and country in the world, there are some really good people and some really bad people. We are all the same.” I would challenge him by arguing that every person in every city around the world can be both really good and really bad. I know that’s at least true for myself.
My closing questions are as follow:
Why, when the bodies of Syrian children are washing up on shores by the dozens, does it take this kind of event to grab the world’s attention?
I love that everyone is uniting behind France: changing their profile pictures to a French Flag. However, I see no South Sudanese flags flying in response to mass rape and other horrendous war crimes. I saw no Liberian flags flying in the wake of Ebola. I saw no flags of Nepal flying after thousands of people were killed in earthquakes. So why are we truly supporting Paris right now?
In a perfect conclusion to the story of my weekend, I boarded my plane Sunday night and sat down in seat 32F. A few minutes later, Cole sat down in 32E. The odds of this happening are approximately 1 in a billion. We spent the next 3 hours discussing not the events of the weekend, but instead the implications, in attempt to answer the questions above.
We decided the following:
As the west lets fear surround us and hatred divide us, it falls prey to what ISIL really wants. Their mission is so much greater than the dark hours of Saturday night. The beautiful malice of their plan is in the ensuing hours. As the west succumbs to fear and hatred, it helps ISIL accomplish the most difficult part of their plan. As xenophobia and judgement emerge, so does ISIL as victorious.
As a Christian, my proposed, yet incomplete answer is this: It is not a skin issue, but a sin issue. We are all guilty. Our response to this massacre in light of the refugee crisis shows that we act out of fear before empathy. We are not necessarily morally superior, but instead powerfully fearful. An American, French, or British life is not more valuable than a Syrian life. Each has infinite value.
The Times: What is wrong with the world today?
G.K. Chesterton: Dear sir, I am.