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Life beyond Brussels and Paris terror



When suicide bombers struck Brussels, I was travelling far from home, in southern Italy. News of the terrorist attacks left me with the familiar feeling of revulsion, fury and sorrow for those people blown to pieces for the sake of someone's warped ideology.

ISIS monster looms over tourists in Paris, who go about their businessBut they also evoked in me something new, a sense of vulnerability, for within days I would board a series of flights from Reggio Calabria to Rome to Abu Dhabi and then Sydney.

I would stand at check-in counters like those victims at Brussels Airport had done; I would disgorge the contents of my backpack at security checkpoints, watch as other travellers were forced to discard everyday items — bottles of water and shampoo and wine, objects transformed into evil contraband in this age of terrorism.

I would spend long hours in aeroplane cabins, crammed alongside passengers who might well nurture malicious intentions towards their fellow-travellers, who might well have smuggled on board a bottle of water with which to make a bomb, a Stanley knife with which to slit the pilot's throat, a fake bomb vest with which to stage a hijacking.

For if terrorists could infiltrate a supposedly secure, world-class European airport then surely no place in the world was safe.

And if the savages who masterminded these attacks could impinge so forcefully on the psyche of a woman travelling in a remote corner of southern Europe, far from any terrorist activity, then they had achieved what they had set out to do: spread fear and distrust far beyond the site of their attacks, across countries and continents and oceans so that eventually the whole world would be infected.

I was reminded at this moment of the Paris attacks that occurred last November, and which sent parents at my daughter's school into a fit of panic. A group of students was set to fly from Sydney to Paris on New Year's Eve and to travel on to Spain a few days later as part of an arts and language tour.

The school had been planning the trip for more than a year; many students had found part-time work to finance the journey — for some, this would be their first overseas trip; we parents manned Bunnings barbecues all year long to raise funds for additional activities.


"If the savages who masterminded these attacks could impinge so forcefully on the psyche of a woman travelling in a remote corner of southern Europe, then they had achieved what they had set out to do."


But news of the Paris attacks changed everything. After much discussion between school and parents, it was decided that the Paris segment of the journey would be cancelled, as would attendance at a much-anticipated soccer match in Barcelona. One family withdrew their child altogether.

The funds raised at the barbecues were used, in the end, to pay the cost incurred by the changing of airline tickets so close to the departure date. The terrorists, it seemed, had successfully sullied our children's trip, and wasted our hard-earned barbecue money.

But it was fear, rather than the terrorist attacks, that resulted in these last-minute changes. If our children had gone to Paris as originally intended, if they had attended that soccer match in Barcelona, no harm would have come of it, for no attacks occurred in either of those places during that time.

Never mind, parents said; it might have happened, and for that it was worth curtailing the planned activities.

But what life will we — and our children — live if we restrict our excursions based on what might happen, on what ISIS might have planned for us this week or next?

Though terrorism is a vile scourge that should be forcefully denounced, it seems pointless to allow it to control us when the facts are taken into account.

Americans, for example, are more likely to be crushed by furniture than killed by terrorists; between 2007 and 2011 — long after 9/11 — the odds of dying in a terrorist attack in the US were one in 20 million; even in terrorism-affected countries like Israel, casualties from such attacks almost never come even close to the number of traffic deaths.

But so strong is the evolutionary instinct to protect ourselves — and the media's tendency to overexpose certain stories while ignoring others — that we persist in profoundly miscalculating the risks we face. In so doing, we create for those terrorists the fearful, hateful, shrunken world they so desire.

Not that we should be blasé about the dangers that exist in our world, or cease practicing caution where necessary. When I was growing up in apartheid South Africa, terrorist attacks were a regular occurrence. Once, a bomb exploded beneath a table in the café where my best friend and I would eat hot fudge sundaes after school on Fridays. People were killed and maimed; we were acutely aware that we could have been among them.

But terrorism will eventually claim us as its victims, anyway, if we allow such acts to circumscribe our lives, if we become introverted, fearful, suspicious of others.

As I travel extensively for my job, I choose to assume the best of people, and I hope they will assume the best of me, too. Wherever I go, I'm rewarded with connections and encounters and friendships. I see each one of them as a grand triumph over those small-minded people who won't rest until they've reduced our world to a sad, lonely, spiritless place.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Brussels, Paris, ISIS



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Existing comments

Thank you for the balance present in this article. My daughter, her husband and four little children fly to Europe next week and your article gives me the perspective I need. Another of my daughters was on the Tube in London the morning it was bombed, I have a niece who was honeymooning in Bali when the bombings occurred, and my brother travelled round London during the IRA bombing campaigns around forty years ago. Every day we live is a calculated risk and a miracle and blessing. Your reference to the selectivity of the media coverage is a significant component of the success of the terrorist campaign.

Julie | 08 April 2016  

Thank you for your personal response to how we need to respond to fear. Perhaps the new form of warfare which we call terrorism will engage enough of us to make a bigger, more effective noise when our 'leaders' take us into war..............or maintain the wars which continue to cripple in so many parts of the world.

helen cantwell | 13 April 2016  

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