A Personal Essay
Terrorism is nothing new. It’s been a facet of my life since high school. As a sophomore in high school, sitting in a journalism class, I couldn’t quite comprehend a plane hitting one of the twin towers. Somehow in my mind I imagined it had clipped the building and continued flying. Our journalism teacher let us listen to coverage on NPR, but by the time I reached geometry class, it was back to business as usual. As if we could quickly box up our emotions, push them to the side, and move on with our day. Once I had time to reflect, realized the gravity of the situation, and reality started to sink in. My uncle worked across the street from the twin towers and he was unreachable for several hours that day, as cell lines were jammed. Fortunately, he reached out that evening to let us know he was safe from this act of terror, but the world as I once knew it was changed forever.
That summer, I was due to travel to Europe with my classmates. It would be my first big adventure, and the thought of it being canceled was devastating. Fortunately my teacher had the attitude that I would later adopt. While somewhat nervous and hesitaant to take 30 teenages to Europe, she decided to move forward with the trip, and not let terrorism change our plans. Despite our bus hitting a bridge, a flat tire on a plane, and a spare tire crashing through the windshield on the Auto Bahn, there were no issues of terrorism on that trip!
The terrorist attacks on the twin towers also did not deter me from taking residence in a dormitory just a few blocks away from Ground Zero a few years later when I was a freshman at Pace University. My mother wanted me to stay local for college, but I argued with her that Ground Zero was one of the safest places on earth post 9-11. Crime statistics and the strong security forces lining the streets of downtown Manhattan, convinced me it was a safer environment than the campuses of schools in inner-city St. Louis. I won that battle, and moved to New York in the Fall of 2004.
It wasn’t in New York where I experienced terrorism first hand. It was while I was spending the summer in London after completing my first year of college. Still only 18 years old, and with limited world experience, I hadn’t developed all of my street smarts at this point. I ventured out to see a few sights on my own during the six week trip. One of my bucket list items was the Tower of London (and it should probably be on everyone’s bucket list). Due to a schedule change, I went to see it on Tuesday, July 5th 2005. Had this fortuitous change of plans not occurred, I would have been heading to the Tube on Thursday July 7th, 2005 around the time of the bombings. Luckily I was safe in my unfurnished London flat with no television.
That morning was chaotic. My flatmate had lived in lower Manhattan during the 9-11 attack, so this affected her a little more deeply. Clearly renewing pain and fear that she never quite recovered from. We did have a landline in the flat, so I decided it would be best to call my mother before she woke to hear the news back in the states. I remembered the unsettling feelings while we awaited news that my uncle was safe just a few years before. She was not pleased when I decided to move to New York City for college, and she was even less pleased when I told her I wouldn’t be home for the summer due to this extended stay in London. I was hysterically crying by the time I called my mother to wake her in the middle of the night. I let her know I was safe. She let me know she had no idea what I was talking about or why I called her in the middle of the night to wake her. It was still the middle of the night in St. Louis, and she didn’t have a clue about the events taking place in London that morning. By the time the news spread across the US, my mom was equipped with the news that I was in my flat in London safe from the chaos, and easily shared the news with friends and family as they called her. Remember, this was 2005, Facebook was in its infancy. My mom and sister didn’t even have accounts yet! This was when it was college students only! Now Facebook offers a feature allowing people in disaster struck areas to check in with a click to let friends and family members across the globe know they are safe.
The rest of my time in London was pretty somber. There were memorials and investigations. We avoided tourist attractions and major travel for the remainder of our stay. I was relieved to return to New York, my new home. I thought I would feel safe and free again after feeling rather confined during my last few days in London. Unfortunately, the terror stuck with me, and the terrorists were winning. While they say lightning doesn’t strike twice, the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993, prior to the major 2001 attacks. I hadn’t previously feared another major attack in lower Manhattan, but at this point, anything seemed possible in my mind.
My newest fear was the NYC Subway system. NYC was on high terror alert, and police had set up card tables in many police stations to check the bags of passengers, mostly through racial profiling. Unfortunately, these measures were lacking, and I did not feel safe at all. It would have been very easy for a terrorist to have made an attack during this time period, while we supposedly had our highest level of security in action. I walked from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to TriBeCa for work every day for two weeks. For those of you who don’t know Manhattan geography, that’s about a 5 mile walk.
Eventually I admitted to myself that I could not keep this up. I had to make a choice, and I chose to live without fear. That doesn’t mean I threw caution to the wind. I am still my same Type A self, who worries about being late, always carries an umbrella, and plans vacations in advance. That experience in London changed me forever, but it helped me decide who I wanted to become as a person. It was on those hot August days that I realized, I would be a New Yorker (I am happy to say 12 years later, I have finally earned that badge). I was a resident of one of the greatest cities on earth, and I was going to live my life. Sure, I take precautions. Once I resumed subway transportation in the summer of 2005, I made a few practical changes. I only wore closed toed shoes on the subway. Can you imagine evacuating a subway car and walking down those rat filled tunnels for safety? Think like a survivor…surviving is a given in this mindset, but having rats nibble on my feet would really mess with my psyche. I also always made sure to have a bottle of water and a snack in my bag, as many survivors could end up trapped for several hours depending on the severity of incidences. These are a few changes I’ve made to help embrace my choice to live but also increase comfort and my sanity in the rare case I experience one of these emergencies. It is just like when I zip my purse, walk along the best lit streets later at night, avoid eye contact with crazy people on the subway. I take precautions, but I haven’t stopped living in the city I love or traveling to the places I want to love.
While this was the choice that was right for me, I won’t judge others who have different comfort levels. Traveling is not a vacation if you spend your days riddled with fear and anxiety. My mother discussed a potential trip to New York this year. It would be her third since I moved here 12 years ago. The only other two times she made the trip were for my graduations. Unfortunately after the Paris bombings in November 2015, she decided she did not feel safe traveling to cosmopolitan areas. I respect her decision, and hopefully she respects mine.
After the bombings in Brussels, people asked me if I would still travel. I am expected in Switzerland for a wedding this summer. If I choose to let fear dictate my life, I would stay home and send a lovely gift. Instead, I am preparing to travel, but with precautions. I cannot control everything, but I’ve decided to use this trip to get in touch with nature and take a break from the hustle and bustle of city life. I’ll be visiting the Swiss Alps and the Irish Countryside. Hopefully you’ll find me resting on a four post bed in a castle at some point. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with visiting major european cities, and I encourage travelers worldwide to continue fulfilling your travel dreams while traveling smarter (see six tips here!). Do not let acts of terror stop you from living your life. We are still the lucky ones, we have the opportunity to move around the free world, and travel with relative ease. We must appreciate and take advantage of this great privilege while it still exists.
**I was hesitant to publish this piece. I didn’t know if it fit in with the vibe of my blog, or where to categorize it. After speaking with a Belgian national expressing her thoughts and fears after the recent Belgian bombings, I decided to share my story. We see a lot of articles about traveling despite terrorism to the point that they are cliche. I simply wanted to share my experience to hopefully bring comfort to those most recently affected by terrorism and encourage them to take their time, find themselves, and hopefully make the decisions that make themselves feel most comfortable. I live every day knowing today could be the day that something happens in NYC. However, I am more worried that today might be the day I get hit by one of those delivery cyclists who obey absolutely 0 traffic laws. And finally, a special thank you to the men and women who work hard to keep our cities safe and care for those injured by terrorism and other disasters.