I got a text message this morning from a friend of mine on the heels of the Brussels attack.
No Europe for me... This crap is going to kill your business.
I chuckled... not because of the hideous cowardice of the latest bombing, but because of the predictability of certain people. This is a guy who spent some college time in Austria - and loved every minute of it. But he has grown soft in many ways, padding the walls of his American bubble, but never failing to reach out every so often and tell me how he has GOT to get to Europe... That the American rat race and one-dimensional society is killing him.
I get it. 100%. The reason for wanting to stay - and the reason why he wanted to travel.
We had a chance to catch up as I headed to New Orleans for a client meeting...
You crack me up, brother. If you're not going to go to Europe because of this, then you'll have to swear off of movie theaters as well. Hell, you'll have to give up going to your darling city of New Orleans, too!
What else could I say? The statistics for getting killed are insanely higher in the United States!
I grew up in Dubai and Belgium. Much of it was a chapter out of Little House of the Prairie - but with a giant slab of National Geographic on top. Our neighborhoods were safe, we traveled often, and got along with everyone - no matter where we lived.
But we weren't without dangerous events and awareness of the world around us.
It's true that my mother took a four, six, nine, ten, eleven, and twelve year old to visit Egypt without my father, on the first of our many trips back and forth each summer. We had a blast - and not a single incident or issue.
But times would change as Israel and Palestine locked horns, and Western values and dress clashed with Arabs of the old school. Post-WWII international power plays, which the United States had a hand in, led to betrayal, abuse, resentment, and backlash.
My eighth grade teacher barely got out of Tehran before the embassy was seized in 1979. Our pastor of the Baptist church in Brussels also came from the Baptist Church of Tehran! We had the very occasional bomb threat at our school, too. It was, after all, full of international students - some with some rather significant ties to high society and international politics. There was even an attack at the Brussels airport that changed some security features (long before 9/11), as well as the Munich Olympic Games attack and some high profile airliner hijackings.
I reminded my mother tonight when we talked that even as kids we were aware of the growing disconnect between ethnic Western Europeans and Muslims, too.
Growing up in Belgium, my friends and I loved going to the video arcade - as Americans who had no US television stations and hooked on this budding technology. Inevitably, we would get harassed by teenage Muslim kids who didn't have much money - and saw us happy, wealthy Caucasian kids as soft targets.
One of my buddies had his nose bloodied by one particular little prick, who head-butted him when we wouldn't give them money. High school girls were attacked for their purses and maybe a cheap grope as well. You'd better believe we learned to pay attention to our surroundings.
And that's no different than a LOT of cities in the United States, isn't it?
Any true native of Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and about 25,000 other cites in these United States will tell you that there are places you go - and places you don't.
It's part of the skill of being a knowledgeable tour guide, after all. And the fact remains that I am still FAR more on alert when I am walking around in New Orleans than I have ever needed to be while in Europe. The statistics back up my point.
Yet focusing on this problem of terrorism and violence, I must point out something else that is equally important:
The Europeans have been rather practical about all of it. I remember the famous French magazine, Paris Match. They showed political upheaval and warfare without any censorship. The photos were brutally graphic. It wasn't to be sensationalistic and cause pandemonium, either. Nor did they dismiss such dangers and trouble or maintain some jaded apathy about it all. Indeed, there is one area where Europeans have Americans beat: perspective.
I think it had something to do with two massive world wars, with the continent of Europe as the center stage...
I stumbled onto Kurt Vonnegut's biography while looking for a quote to counter the wave of frustration I had upon reading a decidedly evangelical Christian response to the Brussels attacks - the second thing which prompted this bit of writing.
It was written by the daughter of one of my favorite human beings on the planet - a childhood mentor who remains a family favorite of me and my five siblings. He attended our church and accompanied us on many a road trip, letting us ride with him and laughing as he held court as this suave, sharp Swiss businessman who had found peace and true community with a group of believers.
But his daughter committed what I can only call a cardinal sin to any true student of military history...
She invoked God for sparing her family and most of their friends from any harm during these attacks. She recounted several close calls and near misses that spared all of her immediate family, including some close family friends' flight out of Brussels the night before the attack as a sign from God...
My parents & friends are alive & safe - thank you Jesus!
There was so much more, but this part really got under my skin - much as I know it to be a most natural reaction from a highly religious person who believes in a very hands-on God taking care of problems and watching over her.
Unfortunately, a brother and sister (who is a close friend of her sibling) are still missing. They could be unconscious in a hospital critical care unit - or dead.
I have always wondered how people can praise God in a calamity - when others have died.
Did the survivors really deserve it? Or more importantly, did God not love the victims as much?
My own naive beliefs were deeply shaken when I began holding hands with military history on a fundamentally deep level. It started with a highly addictive and easily readable military non-fiction series I stumbled onto during fifth grade. There was no link between the authors with nationality or cause... just that they all fought in WWII. Their accounts of combat were gripping... real page turners. I was hooked forever on the subject - and growing up in Europe and around so many famous battlefields really sealed it for me.
And like an animal being led into a trap with a trail of food morcels, I began reading more and more of these books... and not just the American stories - but those of the British, which then led to German and Japanese.
Turns out they were human beings, too...
I grew attached to them. I understood their predicaments. They had faith, families, dreams, and hopes. But the waves of death and destruction didn't spare their comrades, their families, or their cities, either.
It broke my heart to understand the cost of war. It was no longer about planes and tanks, tactics and strategies. It was about the ultimate heights and depths of the human experience. Valor, cowardice, love, hatred, strength and unbridled fear...
The quote I stumbled upon was from the late American author, Kurt Vonnegut.
His story is one that could have given him a similar conviction and faith that God was looking out for him. You be the judge:
Vonnegut was of German descent, but born and raised in the United States. Called into service, Vonnegut was thrown into the lines at the Battle of the Bulge. His unit was overrun, and he was made a prisoner.
And while he and his fellow captives were being transported to a prison work camp, Allied planes attacked their train. One hundred and fifty Allied soldiers were killed. Vonnegut was "spared."
He arrived in the town of Dresden, a beautiful old German city that was not involved in the war materials effort. The inhabitants knew of the bombing raids on other important cities, but Dresden had no preparations or expectation that it would be hit.
It was a sitting duck...
In Vonnegut's words:
There were very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories.
But the Allied bombers did come - and they unleashed on Dresden one of the worst fire bombing raids of the entire war. Over a period of a few days, 1,249 American and British bombers blasted Dresden into oblivion. The firestorm that raged in the city devoured everything in sight. Nearly 25,000 civilians were killed.
And Kurt Vonnegut survived this inferno by hiding out in a chilled meat locker three floors below ground.
When he emerged, he and other surviving prisoners were forced to comb through the rubble and wreckage for bodies - something he called a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt.
Can you even imagine what kind of horror that would have been? And yet Vonnegut survived three massive brushes with death - getting overrun by the enemy, the train bombing, and a giant firebombing raid.
He died as one of the best American writers of the 20th Century - and he held no faith whatsoever.
I don't begrudge a person of faith seeking meaning and thankfulness in being spared the pain, shock, and possible death of a senseless terrorist attack. It is a most natural thing for religious people to take comfort in their beliefs and like-minded communities during times of tragedy and agony.
I can only say that military history has humbled me and obliterated any such notions. The same is true of most veteran accounts I have read from anyone who was exposed to massive bloodshed in lengthy, merciless combat for any extended amount of time.
Many a God-fearing civilian and religious combat veteran of minor skirmishes may love to cling to that empty adage:
There are no atheists in foxholes.
But I guarantee you that they could never honestly utter that again after reading about the Battle of Verdun, which saw 700,000 casualties in ten months of fighting (The US lost around 58,000 in ten YEARS in Vietnam, for a reference point).
Any military historian who has truly dug into the horrors of bloody offensives in WWI - such as the Somme Offensive, where Great Britain lost 25,000 men on the first DAY of the battle or the Eastern Front and the nasty Pacific island assaults of WWII - will ever speak glibly of faith and God.
In WWI, chaplains were ridiculed and chased off by soldiers, such was the level of indiscriminate carnage.
There was no divine plan. It was hell on Earth.
We will continue to run tours in Europe, being ever mindful of high priority targets, as Paris, London, and Brussels have become.
And we take no issue with good people of faith who live wholesome, charitable lives and are part of the solution to human conflict.
But it is very hard to make sense of a world that has every action, every bit of pain, and every life and death being controlled in intimate detail by a Supreme Being, when you have spent as much time as we have understanding the nature of man, war, and destruction.
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Brussels attacks - as it does for people around the world who are subjected to violence and war-like conditions to this day. Our unwavering support goes out to the men and women who are working around the clock to find these monsters and take them out of our population for good.
We will not continue to run tours out of some false sense of bravado or blinded conviction, either.
But we will continue to run tours to Europe, knowing there are plenty of places that are as safe as the best neighborhood in the United States and remembering the great need that all humans have for travel, interaction, stimulation, and that wonderfully important thing called perspective.
Safe travels to you, my friends.
“Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle