The Horrors of Terrorism Makes Travel an Imperative Not a Luxury


There's not a word in our language that's just right for the feeling when you've escaped a disaster — the sense some might call "there but for the grace of God . . ."  or dodged a bullet. But even lacking a label, something definitely happens when you experience a place that's later visited by terror, something that may be critical to our survival.

As attacks destroy lives around the world in an endless loop it's easy to grow numb. Watching the aftermath of yet another bombing unfold on a little screen, maybe we'll change our Facebook profile photo or join a hashtag movement. But do we feel anything? Maybe sympathy, or, if it's particularly awful by the new and ever steeper scale of such things, we feel a little horror. It's surreal, far away, not related to us. Unless, that is, we've been there.

This probably isn't unusual, but I've been to multiple places that were later attacked by terrorists. First was a restaurant overlooking Marrakech's Djemaa El Fna square. In 2009, my first trip to Morocco ended with dinner there. I couldn't tell you what I ate because my friend and I were too mesmerized by the scene unfolding  below. Cumin-laced smoke from rows of food vendors swirled upwards into the rose-tinged sky. Strains of the call to prayer echoed over the square's melee. Jewel-toned lanterns glowed brighter as night fell. I felt very very far from home and alive with the frisson of being in a place so unknown to me. Two years later I saw the news: A bomb attack destroyed the restaurant and killed 15 people, most of them tourists.

A few years later I landed at the airport in Istanbul with my mom. Her first big international trip was to accompany me on assignment to write about a Mediterranean cruise. After our 10-hour flight I hurried her through passport control to wait at that netherland of baggage claim for a vast stretch of time. Bookending that trip we strolled Las Ramblas in Barcelona. Three years later, men with guns and bombs killed dozens and injured hundreds at the airport. Four years later (nearly to the day), terrorists plowed through crowds in the busy Barcelona promenade, killing more than a dozen people and injuring at least a hundred.

And in the fall of 2015 I sat down to a solo dinner at Le Petit Cambodge in Paris. Paris is the home of my heart, and days after my meal there the news broke: as part of their concerted attacks across the city, terrorists had transformed the bright and happy place into a bloodbath.

Unlike when I hear a news report of a faraway tragedy, these instances — but most especially the one in Paris — struck hard. I was on a car trip with my husband, listening on the radio as the attacks unfolded. I could see the restaurant, the people working, the diners sitting next to me who helped me figure out what to order. I could imagine — in vivid color — the men with assault rifles, and the people laughing and eating and loving life one moment and in a waking nightmare the next. Not only because it could have  been me, but because these were people I knew, no matter how fleetingly.

I hastily wrote to our Airbnb host Agnès — she'd sent me to the Cambodian restaurant, one of her favorite places — to make sure she was OK. She was reeling, but safe. Her current guests, she said, had seen it happen. 

I could see it too. Every time I closed my eyes as news of the Paris attacks went on and on, it was there: the warm glow of the restaurant, the old-school rap they'd been playing that evening, for some reason, had made the night even more perfect, the clinking of silverware on bowls, the bright smell of the fresh herbs in my dinner. Only now these sensations were overwritten with the spray of blood and splinter of bone, the roar of gunfire, screams, dishes shattering, desperate last moments trying to find the person you love. If they'd come while I was there, I thought, would I have had time to call my husband at home to tell him how I loved him? My heart seized with pain that wouldn't relent.

Yet I'd only spent one happy evening there myself. Can such an ephemeral connection really have an impact on how we empathize with victims and survivors of such a disaster?

I majored in psychology, but only because I'm fascinated by the human brain. I'm not an expert in anything and didn't continue my studies after my undergrad. The perk to being a freelance writer, though, is getting to ask smart, educated people questions, so I found one Gerald Goodman, Ph.D., a psychology professor at UCLA who specializes in empathy. Though he said he found my question odd and “uninformed at first blush,” he delved into the topic with me.

What did I learn? In short: Absolutely, those connections matter. And maybe far less interaction is needed  than we'd ever think. “About all you need is that minute where you're waiting for a bus,” Professor Goodman said.

He offered a brief primer. The foundations of a successful relationship according to social science, he explained, boil down to honesty, acceptance and empathy. And in some situations, those things can happen in moments.

“With someone new, we can actually experience talk-turn-taking, moments of honesty-dishonesty, a touch of empathy, some sense of being valued,” he said. “Like momentary tastes, samples of what happens in our important relationships. Those interpersonal flickers are actual two-way human connection — not some one-way media abstract.”

When we travel, Goodman noted, the usual process of forming relationships is often sped up. (Think of the things you may have overshared with a stranger on a plane!) And when you're a “foreigner,” he pointed out, you give yourself permission to ask questions. So at a bus stop or in a restaurant far from home you can form what we could call a micro-relationship.

In these instances, something clicks “and you have the primitive experience of being emotionally known,” Goodman said. “It's one of the key ingredients for us being alive. . . . Evolutionary psychologists wouldn't argue if I said that is one of the built-in things in our brains that kept us in survival, because that allowed us to connect . . . and allowed us to be sociable enough to form social groups to survive.” Keeping our ancestors sociable, he also noted, meant they could “get turned on and pass down genes.”

I recalled for Professor Goodman how in that Paris restaurant I'd shared a few moments with a waiter. I had attempted to carry on a bit of conversation in French, laughed at myself for my mangled efforts, and the guy joined me, but in a friendly way. It was nothing, yet it was everything when I heard the news out of Paris. Why had that inconsequential exchange become so important?

“He accepted your playful try to talk with him,” Goodman explained. “He gave you acceptance, and then he gave you honesty by laughing, 'yes, your French is bad,' and then empathy; he recognized the fact that you felt silly . . .  you have in those very few moments micro bits of human connection.”

“That humanizes,” Goodman went on. “I know it's a magical word. But we dehumanize people by their role. 'Waiter died in bomb blast -- but no, it was this waiter, he was a human to me.'”

“Why would that little bit of connection that has some of the elements of a long important relationship, why did that stick in your mind? Because it begins to touch on these basic human elements that we need to survive,” Goodman said. Where we don't have answers, he said, is why. “Science doesn't quite know why it's so important to us to have the experience to be understood.”

But the fact remains that it is crucial to us as humans. And while some may urge that we stay home where we're safe (as if that were true), I want to travel more than ever. For every micro-relationship two people from different parts of the globe can form, that's an added dimension to the bond holding all of us together. Maybe a bond as ephemeral as a spiderweb, but maybe as strong, as well. And the more that hate tears us apart, the more of those bonds we need if we're to keep surviving.

As for my horror-overlaid memories of Le Petit Cambodge, I had to rewrite them. In the aftermath of the attacks I vowed I wouldn't travel anywhere else until I could revisit the restaurant. And I didn't. A year and a half later an assignment took me to France, beginning with a night in Paris. I grabbed a bike right after checking in to my hotel, heading across the city for the Canal Saint-Martin, my old neighborhood from the last trip. I was meeting Agnès for lunch. I arrived at  Le Petit Cambodge first. Now, this trip, it was spring and daylight, not fall and dark. Every seat along the sidewalk was taken, every diner as unattainably chic as ever.

The Paris sky was so blue it hurt my heart.

The horror didn't disappear, exactly. But it faded to something like the ghost of an imprint left on tracing paper as Agnès and I ate and talked of normal things — well, as normal as buying a castle, as she'd just done, can be. She asked for a to-go container, something I'd never have the nerve to do in Paris, but she wanted leftovers for the chickens at her new place in the country. Her exchange with the waitress was in French, and I don't remember it. I hope she doesn't have to. 

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