Yesterday a suicide bomber approached a German tour group by an obelisk near Sultanahmet square and took the lives of at least 10 people. Less than 24 hours before, Elizabeth and I were walking around Sultamahmet with our friend Sarah. We talked about the layers of history around us and lamented that American students aren’t exposed more to the richness of culture and history in this part of the world. We stood before the obelisk and realized that, a thousand years ago, we would be in the midst of racing chariots. This was the Hippodrome where emperor Justinian once massacred tens of thousands of protestors.
Elizabeth and I were at breakfast on the other side of the city when the explosion happened. We didn’t hear anything. There were at least a million people closer to the blast than we were. We heard what happened like most people several continents away, on the TV. As details emerged, we began to feel increasingly uneasy. This was the exact place where we had stood the day before. We thought of our families and worried for the groups of German tourists we’d seen around the city. We were lucky.
Photo Credit: Sarah Payne
We were perhaps too cavalier when we dismissed the concerns from our friends and family about visiting Istanbul. This is a country whose eastern border is an active war zone. The crossing with Syria is porous, to put it mildly. On our first night here, we met a journalist who joked about taking us to the east. As we left, he made sure to be a bit more serious, “Do not go to Syria,” he said. “You will be kidnapped, 100%.”
So, many people are reacting to yesterday’s attack as something that’s tragic but unsurprising. For me it’s underlining a different reality: Nowhere is ‘safe.’ Boston, Paris, Cologne, San Bernardino, an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. I have friends who were personally affected when a gunman opened fire in a movie theater in my home state of Louisiana. Black people in our country live with the fear that routine interactions with the police could end in death. Sending their children to play in a white part of town has become an act of courage. Terror is everywhere. I don’t feel any less safe today than I did on Monday.
One of the most startling things about yesterday is how quickly a place can appear normal. Yesterday evening people came back to the hostel having just learned what had happened. One man had spent the whole afternoon near Sultanahmet square without knowing a thing. Public transportation in the area was briefly halted, but it’s running again now. Of course the political ripples will continue much longer, and for many people life will never be the same. A certain melancholy hangs in the air. Periodically I imagine what the scene must have looked like and feel sick.
Data shows that the world is actually safer than it’s ever been. But the ways it’s unsafe today are unfamiliar, and they are especially susceptible to narratives of fear and aggression. There is a temptation to define an ‘other’ and rage against them. The broader the ‘other’ we define, the more satisfying our anger will feel. But fear and unquestioning anger will only further radicalize people in all the fractured pieces of our world. I am not a pacifist, but I know that strength cannot be righteous without compassion.
Last week I visited the hill in Turkey where, it’s believed, Saint John wrote his gospel. When I returned I decided to read some of it before going to sleep. I was reminded that Jesus also lived in turbulent and oppressive times. His guidance was clear, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” I don’t think you need to be a practicing Christian to think that there’s truth in that idea. In times that seem dark, maybe each of us should do our best to find the light we wish to carry. It’s difficult, but it’s a more uniquely human ability than fear.