On danger, Violence and Invincibility

Being from a “dangerous” country comes with a series of interesting interactions about safety, both in the context of your own country and others. First of all, it makes you both more cautious about possible dangers in other countries – because the idea of danger is real for you, it’s a first-hand experience and not a newspaper article – but also more desensitized, you don’t have the time and energy to dwell on every bombing or every act of political violence – it’s just a fact of life after all.

The fact of “danger” at home, besides shaping your own conception of safety, also shapes others’ perceptions of your life and country. In our context, “danger” is a feature of particularly non- Western-European-ness, the Middle East is dangerous. If we extend it, the Balkans and Eastern Europe can also be considered dangerous. On the other hand, Western Europe is not dangerous – even when it experiences terrorism and violence, these are seen as anomalies and tragedies, not features fundamental to these societies and states, but incidents directly attacking the fundamental values of the society. One rarely hears anything about values when such a thing happens outside Western Europe – other societies don’t have their fundamental values threatened with acts of violence. Somehow, the violence actually reflects the traits of the society – according to the Western observer; the “East” is inherently compatible with danger and violence.

With this idea of an inherent difference in societal values regarding safety and danger, the European traveler does more than traveling to an already-Orientalized world: they also travel from a world of safety to a world of danger. It does not matter whether there has actually been instances of violence and terror recently in the city of destination, it does not matter if there is actual tension or grounds to justify this fear. It does not even matter if the traveler’s city of origin has seen a spike in danger recently or is actually a “dangerous” city – with high crime rates, for example. The destination, in the “Middle East”, is inherently more dangerous. We can see this in introductions to travel blogs – prologues about the fears of the traveler and the dangers of traveling to wherever, and the disparities in reporting of tragedies and minor attacks in different places.

Another result of this perspective is the idea of danger being subjective – a country will be deemed dangerous for tourists from the US or Europe, for example, while there are people who live their lives there and do not consider it dangerous at all. This summer, a student doing his mandatory internship in Istanbul received a message from the university about how it was dangerous and how he should not do it there, while he had been living in the city for years and would be spending time there if he wasn’t doing an internship – regardless of the university’s well meaning but somewhat misguided attempt of protecting the student. What is dangerous to locals and what is dangerous to the tourist are different – the local is a part of the society producing the danger and therefore inherently suitable to live in a dangerous country, while the tourist is different and should be protected. To reflect on current issues, this perspective extends to the Syrian war and the refugee crisis: what would be considered dangerous for citizens of European Union’s member states, for example, are not dangerous enough to require intervention and aid for Syrians.

The idea that “danger” is a feature of some societies due to their inherent traits and values also leads to an idea of invincibility – the “rules” that apply to locals do not apply to the traveler. You can imagine that I could not get a Schengen visa, and overstay by 6 months, and then write a cutesy article titled “What happens when you overstay the French visa”, and defending my choice of illegally staying in Europe by “living in the moment” and “good intentions”. I would, I have and I still do, in fact, go through a bureaucratic process to obtain a visa, and would definitely face repercussions if I were to casually overstay by that much. For me, or most people in the world, the action would not be living in the moment or taking risks, it would be plain stupid and illegal. (I could definitely not make a lighthearted and fun blog post about it, like in this link: http://www.journalofnomads.com/overstay-turkish-visa/)

In the end, calling a place “dangerous” is a political decision as well – it is ascribing a value (or a fault – the fault of being dangerous) and it is almost equivalent to making a moral judgment about the qualities of the local community and administration. Since we consider danger inherent to an extent, when we ascribe the quality of being dangerous to a place, we are creating a story around the place – about the people, about their daily lives, about the future prospects and history of the place. It is particularly interesting when we forget that actual people are born and spend their entire lives in the cities or countries we talk about – especially when students are told to not do their internships in cities they normally live in, because it’s dangerous.

My point is – it is true that some places are more dangerous than others, it is a fact but the way we define danger/ousness is not objective or neutral. We need to consider why we are ready to accept the dangerousness of certain places, and see events that would award another city the title of dangerous as a series of exceptions or the work of outsiders as opposed to arising from qualities of the locals when they occur in some, often familiar, places. Also we need to realize that dangerous for X does not mean dangerous for everyone – I think of this every time the oh-so-lovely traditions of our campus are performed in the middle of the street, some people will be kicked off airplanes for using Arabic words and some people can chant “Allahuakbar!” with no repercussions, not even mentioning the discomfort of many students from countries in which these acts carry violent or extremist connotations. I will be questioned on why I am not using French in the street (to be honest, you would not want to hear me speaking French with my barely-B1 level), will be a priori considered suspicious when I enter stores but I know that not all students don’t have the same uncomfortable experiences, while some experience more systemic obstacles, beyond these simple micro-aggressions. Then, can someone who feels unsafe in a location call it dangerous? Or are there a defined set of criteria we use to determine this? Whose un/safety do we consider to be a sufficient indication of danger? One thinks these every time a country issues a travel warning for one’s home, with slight bitterness and confusion.

The politics of danger are related to priorities and un/mournability – I think we need to examine what and where we call dangerous, and think about the ability to challenge norms and ideas that not everyone has – how the same act is perceived differently when done by people with different passports. Also, we need to realize that although different patterns are observed in different places and societies, danger or safety are not inherent to a people or a place, and therefore should neither be normalized (therefore absolving the international community of responsibility – it’s just “like that” in the region, what can we do?) with the ascription of the adjective “dangerous” to a place, nor be considered as something that must or cannot exist within the internalized values of a society. The words we use to describe places where people are born and spend their lives and die, and carry the fact of their origin with them throughout their lives, are rarely neutral or apolitical.

Alaz Ada

Alaz is from Istanbul, Turkey and is in the dual degree program with University of British Columbia. She enjoys writing essays especially on the social sciences but also writes poetry and prose; and sometimes also reads, paints and cooks as a hobby.

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