My father has always traveled for a living. It is a small irony that my work now requires me to do the same. It is the only family tradition that we have – taking occupations that require us to be away from those we love more often and for longer than we’d like – and we are three generations deep into it. It was, I suppose, the arrogance of my own youth that made me believe that becoming an anthropologist was so different or worse, an improvement, from my father’s work as an aviation mechanic or my grandfather’s truck driving. Traveling these days, however, is precarious whether one does it for business or leisure.
When my father had to go out of town it was a huge affair for our family. My mother cooked everything he liked in the days leading to his departure, my brother and I attempted to behave like model children, and on d-day we, of course, accompanied him to the airport. It was the early 90s, very few people outside of Texas knew or cared about a young man named George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security did not exist and as long as you passed a security clearance (which did not consider water or contact solution as weapons of terrorism) you could accompany a traveler to his or her departure gate. And we did, more times than I can remember. We stood silent, plastered to the floor to ceiling windows, tears rolling down our faces. He was gone again; doing what he knew best which required him to leave again to provide for us from somewhere else.
Years from now, I know my children will not believe me when I tell them this story. Being able to accompany or even meet a loved one at the gate. There was a time when Al-Qaeda, security, or the realities of global terrorism had no real meaning for most Americans. Those days of insulation, naivete, “it couldn’t happen here,” are gone, irrevocably behind us. As I drink and celebrate with friends in Fortingall, Scotland, a tiny village hidden in the Scottish countryside, I know this to be true.
Two men attempt to attack the Glasgow International Airport by driving a jeep into the departures terminal before setting it and the driver on fire. No one is injured, the perpetrators are caught, and the United Kingdom breathes a sigh of relief. In the past 36 hours security officials have foiled three attempted terrorist attacks. Scotland gets a visit because the new prime minister, Gordon Brown, is Scottish.
There is a moment of silence. When the country slows down bracing itself for more violence, when spaces for contemplation open and people wonder if there are better solutions to ending terrorism. But before we can collectively engage these questions, the spin doctors take over:
“BUNGLED TERROR OF AMATEURS”
“DOCTORS OF DEATH”
“CAR BOMBERS ARE BRITISH DOCTORS”
“TERROR COPS SEIZE DOCTOR AND WIFE!”
“BOMBS: TWO DOCTORS HELD”
The space closes, and we are back to business as usual. The papers report at least 15 racially motivated crimes against Scottish Muslims in the week following the attacks. Brits respond with equal violence, dropping the mask of liberal multicultural tolerance:
Should have let the miserable radical bastard burn a bit longer, then pour salt in his burning flesh! I am fed up with Muslims excusing themselves as peaceful when they are obviously not! Islam is a dangerous religion and should be banned from all Western nations, in and out of EU period!
I had an appointment with my G.P. today to lance a boil on my backside. I think I will phone Dr.Hassan and cancel until I have converted to Islam. Be Safe ….Be Scared…..Be Muslim….or else. Sleep Tight
I breathe heavy, turn the page, search the paper for subjects and people (Islamic fundamentalist terrorists and psuedoliberal white Europeans) who do not frighten me.
The world has changed for me. It is an ugly place where I do not feel safe. As a Black woman of deep political conviction, I am opposed to the policies and actions of my government. And, yes, it is mine even when it ignores me, disrespects me, and enacts terror and domination around the globe in my name and without my consent. I struggle for justice and peace recognizing the grievances and wrongs done to peoples in the Middle East while rejecting the senseless bloodlust of sectarian, fundamentalist terrorist organizations. And I know we have our own fundamentalists to battle at home.
But when I grab my passport, check my bags, pass through security checkpoints, and board an airplane, I take my life into my own hands. I am not protected. Not my politics, not my blackness, my identity as the daughter of an immigrant and the children of enslaved Africans, my genuine desire for peace, or my conviction that the U.S. needs to get the fuck out of the Middle East and spend our money on research into biofuels and gasoline alternatives. None of this protects me. I am coming to terms with my own small human vulnerability. This body will not live forever, and forces outside of myself can take it from me before I am ready to let it go.
When they tell us what has happened in Glasgow, my thoughts fly home. In this moment I want to bury my face in my father’s shoulders; wrap my arms around my mother’s waist and curl myself around her like I did as a child; place my hands, palms flat on my beloved’s face and create our own sanctuary where I can pledge my life and love to him for as long as we both live on this Earth. In that moment, thousands of miles from those who matter most to me, the only thing that can quell my fear is love.
I used to believe that suicide bombers were freedom fighters protesting the injustices done them by placing their lives and bodies on the line. 20th century versions of Nat Turner or Touissant L'Overture -- individuals driven to revolutionary violence by oppressive, genocidal colonial states. I thought, given similar circumstances someone like me, could someday feel compelled to do the same thing.
I no longer believe that.
I now know that life is too precious for man to carelessly give or take away.
We are all standing on shifting sand; the world is changing and I have no idea where it is going or what the future might bring.
I hope for clarity, compassion, and forgiveness.
I pray for peace and reconciliation.
But, like a proper realist, I steel myself for the worst.
Passengers can no longer be dropped off at the departure terminal at the Glasgow International Airport. The news shows long lines of people hauling their luggage for miles towards the airport, like first world refugees.
Our children will never know what it was to live the way we did, a semblance of freedom that came in the form of ignorance of fear. Naïve of the terror that has afflicted the rest of the world for the last sixty years. It is almost impossible for those of us who lived it to recall those days and believe it.
I have to get home to my family and I must get on a plane to do it and trust that today is not my day, right now is not my time. I can outrun the fear and the violence just one more time and let love help me to find my way home.