Tag Archives: terrorism

Living with the Threat of Terrorism in Italy

I heard about the 7/7 bombs from my dad, who called to let us know that my daughter and her boyfriend, visiting them in England, were safely at home in Milton Keynes, though they had all been touristing in London the day before. I checked in with various friends; everyone’s okay. Life in London returned Read More…

I heard about the 7/7 bombs from my dad, who called to let us know that my daughter and her boyfriend, visiting them in England, were safely at home in Milton Keynes, though they had all been touristing in London the day before.

I checked in with various friends; everyone’s okay. Life in London returned to normal the next day, with detours to place flowers at the bombing sites. Londoners have survived worse. Some still remember the Blitz in WWII, and most remember the years of IRA terrorism.

Israelis, of course, were unfazed by the news. It seems that everyone in Israel has lost a friend or loved one to terrorist bombs, or has their own near-miss story. The Israelis learned long ago how to cope with “everyday” terror, including such frighteningly hard-headed strategies as putting one’s children on separate buses to school.

In Italy, there had already been a noticeable police presence in railway stations, and sometimes on the trains, reminding us that we’re under siege. The Italian police forces had not been idle, but they increased their efforts after the London bombings, and arrested or expelled from the country dozens of people considered dangerous. Government officials have publicly stated that Italy is, nonetheless, at considerable risk. One even said specifically that they’re expecting something to happen in February, though he did not elaborate on the reasoning behind this prediction. The timing seems to be related to next spring’s elections, on the assumption that, since the Madrid bombing changed the Spanish government and led directly to the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq, the same logic might be applied to Italy (thanks, Spain).

France and the Netherlands have temporarily suspended the Schengen accords (which allow free movement across borders) and are checking everybody entering and leaving. I’m not sure how useful this is. The London terrorists were home-grown, and France and the Netherlands have their own disaffected Muslims; it would be more useful to look harder at people already in the country. Though it seems that the masterminds and instructors of the London bombings may have been foreigners; I guess we don’t want the same guys personally spreading their cheer in other countries.

What does all this imply for everyday life in Italy? I commute to Milan almost every weekday, by train. I suppose I should be worried… Nah. Life’s too short, and, anyway, what am I going to do? Barricade myself in my house? That would truly be a victory for the terrorists. The best thing I can do is spit in their eye, metaphorically, by continuing to do what I do and be what I be. Most of my lifestyle is an affront to the beliefs of these idiots. That’s my personal freedom, and I am not about to give it up.

Here We Go Again: The Beginning of the Second Iraq War

Whatever one’s feelings about the rightness or otherwise of it, war is never a comfortable time. This one in particular is cause for nervousness among Americans overseas. I’ve just received email from the US Embassy in Rome advising “American citizens in Italy to take prudent steps to ensure their personal safety in the coming days. Read More…

Whatever one’s feelings about the rightness or otherwise of it, war is never a comfortable time. This one in particular is cause for nervousness among Americans overseas. I’ve just received email from the US Embassy in Rome advising “American citizens in Italy to take prudent steps to ensure their personal safety in the coming days. Remain aware of surroundings, avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile, vary times and routes, and ensure travel documents are current.”

Strangely enough, all this is very familiar to me. In 1984, I made a long visit to my dad in Jakarta, Indonesia, and ended up working in the commercial section of the US Embassy. One of the perks of the job was an Embassy carpool which took us to work and home again every day.

Then the Islamic Jihad issued death threats against US and European citizens in Indonesia (I don’t remember why, if there was any reason other than “We hate you”). The French and British embassies promptly evacuated all diplomats’ families. The US Embassy didn’t send anyone home, but instituted security measures, like varying the times and routes of our daily carpool rides to the office. “Varying times” meant that the car could show up anytime between 6:00 and 9:00 am, and “varying routes” meant that the trip could take even longer than usual. In the event, nothing happened, and after a while life returned to normal, though a year or two later a rocket was fired into the Embassy grounds.

So I am eerily accustomed to this feeling of being under seige, of having to think about where I should and shouldn’t go (no more movies in English at the cinema, maybe no cinema at all). No big change in lifestyle is needed; I rarely find myself among crowds of Americans anyway. A “worldwide caution” also just issued by the Embassy warns of “potential for retaliatory actions to be taken against US citizens and interests throughout the world.” Okay, so I won’t eat at McDonald’s or Burger King — no great loss! (Later: A McDonald’s window was smashed in Milan during peace protests on Saturday, March 22.)

I had much the same feeling of “they’re out to get me” for some time after 9/11, with one big difference: this time, a lot of Italians have it in for me, too. In Italy, as elsewhere in the world, there have been huge peace demonstrations, which the US embassy advised American citizens to avoid: not all the demonstrators would have distinguished between George Bush and Americans in general. There are also a lot of Arabic-speaking and/or Muslim immigrants and businesses in our neighborhood. I’m not sure what to think of them or what they would think of me, especially since Milan was found last year to harbor Al Qaeda’s European headquarters (NOT in our neighborhood).

It’s depressing, this feeling that some people hate me enough to kill me simply because of my citizenship, and wouldn’t bother to find out first what I actually think about things.

And, as is inevitable for Woodstockers, I know people directly endangered by the war: an Indian schoolmate living in Baghdad with her Iraqi husband. Her mother taught me Hindi for several years and was our class homeroom teacher; I worry about her, worrying about her daughter (ironically, her son lives in the US).

Now, It’s Personal

A few weeks ago I wrote about Woodstock School, and you probably guessed from the tone as well as the content that the place means a lot to me. Before I arrived at Woodstock, I had led a tumultuous life which included attending nine different schools in several different countries. Woodstock was a haven and a refuge, Read More…

A few weeks ago I wrote about Woodstock School, and you probably guessed from the tone as well as the content that the place means a lot to me. Before I arrived at Woodstock, I had led a tumultuous life which included attending nine different schools in several different countries. Woodstock was a haven and a refuge, and it provided a much-needed stable point of reference in my chaotic life.

So, if there is any place in the world that I truly call home, it’s there – on a beautiful campus tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, far from the world and all its troubles.

Or so I thought.

Today, through the alumni network, I learned about the publication in The Indian Express newspaper of the prison diary of Ahmed Omar Sheikh. A British national of Pakistani origin, he was jailed in India in 1994 for kidnapping four people. His objective was to hold them for a very particular ransom: the release of Maulana Masood Azhar, a Kashmiri separatist militant then in an Indian jail. In 1999, a plane was hijacked in India, and this time Sheikh succeeded: the planeload of hostages was released in exchange for the freedom of Azhar, Sheikh himself, and another. According to the Express, “The FBI is exploring leads that Sheikh could have been involved in the transfer of $100,000 to Mohammad Atta, one of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks in the US.”

The diary recounts Sheikh’s arrival in India in 1994 and his various attempts to find foreigners, preferably Americans, to kidnap. His plan was to befriend a foreigner travelling alone, and invite the person to visit his “family”, who would then take the traveller hostage. While travelling about in search of victims, Sheikh wrote:

“Next morning, I went to Woodstock School… and applied for a job as a teacher. … if I got it, I could easily bring one of my co-teachers down to visit my ‘relatives’… I had an interview with the vice-principal and I didn’t get offered the job!”

In other words, he hoped to take a job teaching at Woodstock so that he could kidnap one of its American teachers.

In the event, nothing happened; the vice-principal either smelled a rat, or simply didn’t care for Sheikh’s qualifications. But this news was a fist in the stomach to me. I had already accepted, reluctantly, that now is not the time for me to go to Mussoorie for the 20th-anniversary reunion that I and my classmates were so looking forward to. I’m not so concerned about my personal safety – I have a very good sense of self-preservation and am alert to possible dangers. But, with war going on in the vicinity, things could get messy and travel become more difficult, and I didn’t want to leave my family in Italy to worry about me if I got stuck.

But now I must even more reluctantly accept that my beloved school is a potential target. And that truly hits me where it hurts.


Postscript

In July, 2002, Shaikh was sentenced to death in Pakistan for masterminding the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl.

 

Some Thoughts on Extremism

Talking with a friend about the events of September 11th, he mentioned that many devout Muslims, and even Hindus, are offended by some things they see on Western television. My first reaction to this was: “If it bothers them, they don’t have to watch it.” In some countries, governments try to “protect” their people from Read More…

Talking with a friend about the events of September 11th, he mentioned that many devout Muslims, and even Hindus, are offended by some things they see on Western television. My first reaction to this was: “If it bothers them, they don’t have to watch it.” In some countries, governments try to “protect” their people from material that may transgress “local standards,” though censorship is more often in the interest of protecting the governments themselves than their citizens’ social values. We in the West react with horror at the thought of such censorship, and many people go to a great deal of trouble to obtain materials that their governments don’t approve of (hence the popularity of shortwave radios to pick up the Voice of America and the BBC World Service).

However, let’s look at the other side of the coin. Compared with standards in Europe, Americans are downright prudish. In Europe, billboards featuring naked women are common; in Italy, even supposedly serious news magazines boost sales by putting a picture of a naked, full-breasted woman on almost every cover. In the US, such goings-on would be dimly viewed by the peculiar anti-pornography partnership of Christian Conservatives and feminists. (The feminists fear that such uses of women’s bodies are exploitative. Many American religious conservatives, as far as I can tell, are simply horrified by the thought of sex for anything other than procreation.)

Does this mean that everybody in America is so politically correct, or so conservative? Of course not. But there seem to be an awful lot of people in America who put an awful lot of energy into trying to tell other people how to live their lives. Even when I agree with their basic beliefs, this frightens me.

I hate, loathe, and despise the Taliban for similar reasons: they have managed to impose their way of thinking – an extremely conservative way of thinking – on most of their country, to the grave detriment of all its citizens, but especially the women. Since I (unlike them) believe in democracy and freedom of choice, I fully grant every member of the Taliban the right to determine for himself what his religious beliefs are and how he will live his life in accordance with them. But I don’t agree that the Taliban have the right to impose those beliefs on anybody else.

Afghanistan in recent years is a chilling example of what can happen when “righteousness” is taken to its logical extreme. Could it happen in America? Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, two prominent American religious conservatives, spoke on television:

[Falwell] “I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”” quoted in the Washington Post

In other words, if America as a whole practiced Falwell’s brand of Christianity, God would protect us from terrorists.

Take this kind of thinking to its logical extreme, and you have the America imagined by Margaret Atwood in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale. If you haven’t read this book already, I strongly recommend that you do. The society it depicts is not that different (for women) from Afghanistan under the Taliban.

Similar thoughts, more elegantly expressed: Fighting the Forces of Invisibility, By Salman Rushdie