A spectre in Europe

Nothing defeats fear, the kind that is haunting Europe after the terrorist attacks, better than wanderlust


Belgian soldiers at a Christmas market in Brussels’ Grand Place last year. Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Belgian soldiers at a Christmas market in Brussels’ Grand Place last year. Photo: Francois Lenoir/Reuters

In early April, when it was still spring, I woke up on a pleasantly chilly morning and decided to walk down to the boulangerie near the apartment where I was staying, in one of the outer arrondissements of Paris. My friend was away for the weekend, and she had mentioned this particular bakery in the street next to hers, so I stepped out in search of baguette and coffee.

The street was quiet, but then it was a Saturday and not yet 8. As I turned right, into the lane where the recommended boulangerie was, I was startled: I saw two fully armed, battle-ready soldiers, standing alert and looking sharp. I had not seen armed troops in Paris before. Behind them was a synagogue, and next to the synagogue was a kosher market, and it all made sense.

It was just over a year ago that two terrorists had barged into the office of the magazine Charlie Hebdo and killed 12 people, including cartoonists and writers. An associate of theirs held hostages at a Jewish supermarket. Since then, Paris has been on guard, and more so after the November 2015 attacks, when restaurants and cafés, a theatre and a football stadium were attacked in a coordinated move, killing 130 people. The sight of armed soldiers became part of the Parisian landscape.

French army paratroopers patrolling near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, in March. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
French army paratroopers patrolling near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, in March. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

This has been a dangerous summer for Europe. It has been a dangerous summer elsewhere too—in Istanbul, where Europe meets Asia, the airport was attacked; in Kabul and Baghdad, where explosions have become routine; in Dhaka, where a popular café was targeted—but it is different for Europe because Europeans think these things only happen elsewhere.

To be sure, Europe has seen strife and blood within my lifetime—the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and earlier, the Irish Republican Army bombings in Britain, the violence of the Italian Red Brigade and the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, in what was then West Germany—are all vivid examples of a violent past. And yet Europe has lived under the illusion that it is the continent of peace and prosperity: Explosions occur in countries for which they need travel advisories, where they might become hostages or victims due to the bad policies of the US that their leaders foolishly follow. European travellers carry advice on places to avoid, cities to be alert in, suspicious behaviour to notice and telephone numbers to memorize in case something happens.

This summer has shattered that complacency. Nothing is safe, and nowhere is it safe. The simplest, quotidian tasks are fraught with potential danger. A terrorist can spring up from a seat on an inter-city train in Germany. A bomb might explode at the check-in area of the airport in Istanbul or Brussels. You might get shot at a supermarket checkout in Munich. You may not be able to stroll hand-in-hand with your loved one at Promenade des Anglais in Nice, the neater, cleaner version of Marine Drive’s Queen’s Necklace in Mumbai. Be wary of entering a cute church to see its stained-glass windows; a priest was murdered in one such in Normandy. You might get stabbed on your way home after dinner along a quiet park in central London. There is randomness to the violence; you can take nothing for granted.

There is a spectre haunting Europe, and it is the spectre of fear. The fear is raw and inexplicable; it leads people to stare at people who look different, observe them as they go about doing mundane things and move away. It is forcing people indoors, making them avoid crowded places, stay away from the beaches and parks which they throng in vast numbers during summer.

We need to get used to this new normal. It may mean greater security theatre of the kind we are resigned to at airports—metal detectors, taking off shoes, not carrying liquids—as we enter museums and cafés and crowded places. We will learn and adjust. We will have to discard the paranoid travel advisories, do what we want to do, look around, stay sensible—but we can’t lock ourselves indoors, relying on virtual reality experiences to live out the lives we want to otherwise. We need to step out, to learn, to work, to enjoy, to wonder and even to wander. The terrorists want to destroy our wanderlust; we must reclaim it.

Wanderlust is an essential aspect of the human experience. It emerges from our curiosity, our desire to experience what we haven’t, to taste what’s forbidden, to discover what’s unexplored, to attempt what’s untried, to immerse ourselves in unfamiliar territory. Terror is meant to scare us so that we retreat into our shells. Fear makes us inactive; it stalls us, paralyses us.

And yet, it also urges us to act. The hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Afghans and many more who left their devastated homes did so because they wanted to outlive those who wished to destroy their lives. Their wanderlust was forced, but they marched unimaginable distances, swimming across cold seas, often perishing, in search of safety (a lucky few among them, the swiftest, strongest and the most gifted among them, displayed their excellence as part of the refugee team at the Rio Olympics; they have already won their gold medals). They are the real heroes, shaking off their insecurity by stepping out.

The terrorists want to stop these movements—they want to keep those secure in their homes from stepping out; they want to drive out those who once felt safe in their homes. One restricts movement, the other forces movement. What can defeat that spectre of fear is our wanderlust—we must move, ignoring fear, to embrace life.

Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.

Also Read: Salil’s previous Lounge columns

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