Are We Safe Anywhere? An American Traveller Confronts Unspeakable Violence at Home and Abroad


"We're coming up on kidnapping season," said the terrorism analyst.

We were at a meeting in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. A recent spate of violence in Mali prompted the agency to update its travel warnings, and it was seeking perspective from people "on the ground." My partner has driven through Africa a dozen times and is considered something of an expert.

I sat at the end of the table and plunked a sugar cube in my tea. Kidnapping season? Back in my hometown of Ashland, Oregon we have snowboarding season, raspberry season and morel-picking season, but I'd never heard of a season for kidnapping.

In a few days, we planned to drive our colorful bus to Africa. We'd stop in France, Spain and Morocco before eventually arriving in Mali. Once there, we'd visit the Dogon Cliffs and take a friend to visit her former Peace Corps village.

But since 2008, over 25 aid workers and tourists have been kidnapped in the region and sometimes shot or beheaded. These crimes are attributed to Al-Qaeda-linked gangs that raise money through the ransom payments. There is reason to believe the incidents will become more frequent, and visitors are being cautioned.

As much as I like to think of myself as one of those laidback travelers who scoffs at the Dangers & Annoyances section of her guidebook, the discussion was getting to me. This was Al-Qaeda they were talking about: America's Ultimate Bad Guy. Would I even be able to sleep in our bus at night with the prospect of Al-Qaeda lurking nearby?

I often hear fellow travelers making fun of Americans for fearing all sorts of dangers "out there" in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, they hear stories of our legalized firearms and school shootings. America, in the minds of many abroad, is the scary place. I accept their point, but haven't felt scared myself. My hometown is peaceful, almost to the point of caricature. Tame deer wander Ashland's neighborhoods browsing tulips and the residents are well versed in trees and wildflowers. Guru-types like Neale Donald Walsch and Gangaji call Ashland their home and continually espouse the world as a place of loving potential.

At the London meeting, the experts hoped to quantify the risk for travelers by drawing a line on the advisory map that would designate the dangerous areas from the safe ones. For years, the hostage-taking has been confined to areas north of the Niger River, near the porous borders with Mauritania and Algeria. So far, the areas south of the Niger seemed safe.

We set off on our trip a week later. My partner assured me that if we made it all the way to Mali, we'd stick to the main roads, travel in groups and stay in the safe regions south of the Niger. And if I got too worried, I decided, I could always cut my trip short and head back home to Ashland.

Along the way, I thought a lot about Africa. I'll admit that I have the world's second largest continent crammed into a few clichés. Some are positive -- evoked by the wild wildebeest beauty of the Serengeti with Attenborough voiceovers and the soulful sounds of Senegalese singer Baaba Maal. But some are negative, formed by early exposure to imperialist narratives like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and chilling movies like Blood Diamond. What was the difference between the sensationalized stories and stereotypes and the actual statistics?

In early November we arrived in Tarifa, Spain. From this windswept southern tip of Europe, I could see Africa just nine miles across the shimmering Strait of Gibraltar. We nested in a hillside apartment for a few weeks, and I compulsively checked the travel warnings. Then, on November 19 I learned of another attack. A 23-year-old cashier had nearly been decapitated -- in Ashland.

David Grubbs was walking home from work along the bike path that crosses our town. His attacker lunged at him from behind with a large sharp weapon, perhaps a sword or a machete. It was 5:30 pm, not even dark yet, but no one saw. A jogger came across his body 30 minutes later, and phoned the police.

The news hit me bone-deep. I'd shopped at the store where Grubbs worked -- he'd probably rung up my groceries. And the bike path: I'd traveled it hundreds of times, to and from my yoga classes, and from the Tuesday farmers' market. I can remember bright crisp mornings, pedaling home with glorious banners of rainbow chard waving from my canvas bag, with pints of organic ice cream. The victim could have been one of my friends. It could have been me.

The police department would have to fly in a forensics specialist from across the country to study the wounds. Steven Symes is an expert in saw and blade marks on bone. There aren't many. Murder without a motive is rare, but the method -- decapitation -- is almost unheard of. Ashland was in shock. Weren't beheadings the stuff of Other Places, of well, Al-Qaeda kidnappings? Everyone kept saying the same thing: not in Ashland.

A few years ago in an avalanche course, I was warned of the Blue Sky Effect. "When it's sunny out, the terrain is familiar, and you are surrounded by friends," the instructor explained, "it's easy to stop taking precautions. This is when you're most at risk." You could say Ashland, with its gorgeous setting and tight web of friendships, lives with a permanent Blue Sky Effect. "People aren't on guard here," Susan Berry told a local newspaper reporter. "They all think they are safe."

But that's changing. "I'm scared to go outside," Zoe Abel wrote in letter to the Ashland Daily Tidings on December 5. "I glance in the backseat of the car before I get in and quickly relock all the doors ... I don't take my garbage out at night and my heart jumps when things go bump in the night."

She concedes her fear is irrational; but so was the attack. I wondered: would I be any less afraid?

A few days following Grubbs' murder, more violence erupted in Mali. Four tourists were forced from a Timbuktu restaurant by an armed gang. The German man who resisted received a bullet to the head. The day before that, two French citizens were abducted from their hotel in the eastern village of Hombori. This was significant: it was the first kidnapping of Westerners south of the Niger River.

I began to fret in earnest. I tried to focus on the many good stories I'd heard about Mali -- the kindness of the people, the fantastic music. Was the risk getting exaggerated in my mind? Was there an inverse phenomenon of the Blue Sky Effect? A Dark Sky Effect? When the terrain is foreign, there are no familiar faces, and the forecast is bad, do we assume too much caution?

I deliberated on my walks up and down along the coastal trails of Tarifa, looking across the Strait to the African continent, to the outline of Morocco's Rif Mountains. Meanwhile, back in Ashland, crews cut down blackberry bushes on the path looking for evidence. Fifteen detectives chased down hundreds of leads. An FBI behavioral scientist studied Grubbs' social patterns. Nothing could be found. He had no enemies. There was no weapon left behind, no witness and not a single clue. Everything suggested the attack was random. A murderer who killed for no reason was on the loose.

In a town that believes everything happens for a reason, a random act of violence is not acceptable. The detectives reached for increasingly farfetched scenarios. Grubbs played an online video game called Assassin's Creed, which features a decapitation scene. Did he tangle with the wrong gamers? On a web forum, someone ventured whether there was a connection between the murder and the town's Shakespeare festival. After all, the productions use many swords.

Meanwhile, flowers and candles accumulated on the bike path shrine, a memorial service was held and David Grubbs' mom and sister each got a tattoo. It was the same one David had on his right bicep: the asterisk symbol of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, his favorite band.

As for me, I was marooned in Tarifa, just as afraid to go home as I was to travel to Mali.

Sometimes, people make fun of my hometown for being too idealistic, too full of itself, and totally cut off from the rest of the world. "This town doesn't have enough grit," people complain. If that sounds like a bourgeois complaint, it is. But it also speaks a certain truth: that there is something false about a place that has no dark side, something, in fact, unearthly about it. We know it can't be true.

While I check the travel warnings for Mali, my friends back home are checking over their shoulders and double-bolting their doors. Citizens are petitioning the Ashland city counsel to consider lighting the bike path. The trouble is that the murder happened before dark. Karen Smith, a former special projects manager for the county, isn't sure that lights would help: "The public wants to be guaranteed 100 percent safety when they're outside and that just can't happen."

While the London office contemplates where to draw the line on the travel advisory map of Mali, my town is having its own "south of the Niger" moment. We are being forced to acknowledge that if such a thing can happen to a nice cashier who loved music, friends and sunflower seeds on a well-trod path in a nice town, if such darkness can happen even when it is light out, it can happen anytime and anywhere.

"How safe am I in Ashland?" Police Chief Terry Holderness asked this rhetorical question at a community meeting held after the murder. Then he answered himself: "The truth is, I don't know." He was trying to be honest. The truth is, there are no completely safe places, only probabilities -- and we don't even know exactly what those are.

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