Empathy in the Face of Terror

As I crossed the street with my friend, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of fear. “What am I doing?” I thought. I was making my way to a mosque in a foreign country with another American to see what the religious services were like during an important Muslim holiday. Despite my growing anxiety, my friend and I entered the women’s entrance where my friend was given a covering for her hair. I had already prepared and had covered myself from head to toe.

We were guided up a flight of stairs where the women gathered to participate separately in the religious service. We followed along with the other women through a series of standing and bowing and touching our head to our outstretched hands on the floor. The leader of the ceremony was in the large room below us, speaking clearly into a microphone so the large congregation could hear. Even with the clarity and amplification, I couldn’t understand the meaning of the words. I kept my eyes glued to the women around me and followed along.

As I reflected later on my fears, and recalled the smiling faces of the other worshipers as we shook hands and greeted each other at the end of the service, I realized that my fear came from listening to news like we’ve received today of what happened in New Zealand.

Except this was several years ago.

We have been surrounded by terror and acts of terrorism for a long time. Terror against a range of religious majorities and minorities. Terror against ethnicities and nationalities. Terror even against each other.

Being a foreigner can be intimidating. The rules are unfamiliar, I don’t know what’s appropriate, and I automatically stand out as the one that doesn’t belong. It’s not a great feeling. Almost as a natural reaction I eye others with suspicion, thinking they might rob me or rough me up because I stick out so much. Stories from other foreigners often add to my paranoia and so I’ve learned strategies to keep myself and my stuff safe.

But I’ve noticed those feelings are growing among people within their home country.

In various parts of the world, people are starting to develop those same feelings of fear and hate because of growing diversity. Economic, political, and religious crises around the world are creating an astonishing number of displaced people and refugees. We see countries handling these crises in various ways, sometimes by alternating between welcoming and restricting the inflow of needy people. I had a chance to travel to one country that had accepted a large number of immigrants to the point that the local population is beginning to feel outnumbered. Walking around as a person who can more easily align with the local ethnicity, I could sympathize a little bit with those feelings. Less and less often I would see someone who “looked like me” and it was disconcerting to be surrounded by so many “foreign” looking people. It wasn’t until I broke free of my own fears and asked someone to take a picture, which led to a brief conversation, did I finally start to feel less anxious. That simple interaction helped me reconnect with others on a human level, reminding me of our commonalities and giving my paranoid mind a rest from listing out all of the differences.

No matter where you live, everyone is facing the same challenge to connect with people who are not like us, who dress or believe differently, but who are just as human, and equally valuable as we are. If we do not combat this growing shadow over humanity, we will continue to see acts of terror where someone has taken that fear and dehumanized others to the point of no return. It isn’t just a problem people are facing “over there”, it’s happening here too. I’ve heard people express frustration with our bipartisan problems and offered a solution to simply “eliminate” the opposition. While I don’t believe the speakers intended to threaten the lives of those who disagree, it is the dehumanizing rhetoric that leads us to doing things we might not normally do.

We mourn these acts of terror globally, but let us fight the roots and buds of terror here at home.

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