The World Is Not Like Us

Last week a man and his wife were freed from being held hostage by the Taliban. News of their release made me think: why does this keep happening? Why do American tourists and humanitarians get caught in countries they should have never been in in the first place? 

Joshua Boyle took his pregnant wife Caitlan Coleman into Afghanistan for humanitarian assistance. The tragedy that ensued would be unspeakable if it weren't true. You can read for yourself here:

Although this story was fairly unique in it's tragic consequences, these things happen pretty regularly. Here's another recent story:

Then there are the tourists. The "Why the fuck not" people who visit dangerous places. Remember Otto Warmbier?

Then there was this massacre that happened to safari-goers in Uganda:

These people went to watch animals in nature and met the business end of a machete instead. 

It would not be appropriate to make assumptions of each of these people. After all, we only know what happened. We don't know if they truly were naive or they did such things fully accepting the consequences. Still, I can't help but judge. 

It seems to me like Americans, maybe westerners in general, have a skewed concept of what the rest of the world is like. I cannot get inside the minds of the people who've faced these situations. I can, however, talk about my own experience.

When I was in the military, I spent quite a bit of time in Bahrain and Kuwait. I had a chance to travel around the cities a bit and even interact with the local population. I love speaking to people and to try and understand their experiences. While doing so, I realized just how vastly different the middle-eastern experience is.

There are hundreds of countless books on the topic. I don't intend to give you a culture lesson. Just a small tidbit of my own experience. To me, travelling these two countries, I got the impression that the countries leaders basically look at the entire nation as their own personal backyard.  I spoke with a British expat who owned a bar in Bahrain. He had spent 33 years in the country and was still not a citizen. "They can take it away from me any time they want, he said". Our driver in Kuwait pointed out that the royal family basically occupied miles of the coastline for themselves. The museum of Bahrain entrance fee was so high that only the wealthiest people could afford to enter - the wealthiest people were almost certainly of royal descent. There were several other encounters like this. The royal families basically do what they want when they want and the rest of the population is kind of just there. 

What does this have to do with the stories above that are nowhere near Kuwait or Bahrain? My point it that, even with all my education and worldly outlook, I didn't realize just how different another part of the world can be. I had previously traveled extensively in Europe. I thought that it gave me an understanding of "other cultures". It did. Just other western cultures. I made the mistake of juxtaposing this understanding on the rest of the world. 

The same thing happened a few years later when I went to China. It was a completely different experience. The country's culture wasn't anything like Europe, or the middle east. I mean, there WERE similarities. However, there were definitely a lot more differences. Looking back at it, that's when I realized that to expect similarities to your own culture in other parts of the world is not only naive, but it's incredibly dangerous.

When I say "similarities" I don't just mean the type of food, the religion, or the customs and traditions. What I mean is the basic idea of the rule of law, and the understanding of what a citizen is. Whenever I traveled I had this notion that other countries were, at least somewhat, like the United States where the rule of law, however imperfect, is enforced and is fair. That I would get protection from the police. That nothing bad would happen to me because I was, after all, a US citizen and countries had laws. That's where my basic premise was wrong, and such assumptions are what, I think continue to lead to the tragic consequences of tourists and aid workers.

In the US, we think of a country as an entity that is occupied by citizens with certain rights and privileges. There is a government that enforces laws and protects the rights of their citizens both at home and abroad. I think a lot of people take this for granted when planning their travels. I'm not saying the assumption is a conscious negligence. It's often subconscious in nature. It's hard, after all, to imagine a culture and surroundings so very different from yours that you essentially have no reference point for comparison. It's hard, if not impossible, to prepare for such circumstances. That's because even if you do your research, you're still doing it through the eyes of a westerner. 

When I was in the military, we were forced to plan for our foreing trips. Whenever personnel request leave (Paid time off for you non-military types), they must specify the country they are traveling to. If those countries are identified as "high risk" then special permission was required. To get that permission you had to conduct a risk assessment. Many of us thought this was stupid. In one extreme case a guy I know had to conduct a risk assessment and get an Admiral's permission to visit his home country, where his parents and brother still lived. I did such an assessment when I went overseas. But I did it through the eyes of westerner. 

It's hard to imagine a situation where you will be totally and completely helpless. Where your good will will get you precisely jack and shit. Where if you're in trouble, no one will come save you. You just have to hope that your government catches wind of your situation and someone cares enough to help you. While all that's going on, you're still helpless. Your own body isn't even your sanctuary anymore. I dare say that it's the type of hopeless situation that only rape victims really understand. 

"But there are helpless people all over the world, don't they deserve to be helped?"

Of course they do. But understanding the risks with helping them is crucial. It's also one thing to understand the risks, and entirely a different thing to knowingly put your family through it. My wife has always wanted to visit Western Europe. I have always dreamed of going on Safari in remote parts of Africa. I can tell you that neither of us will be doing either one of those things any time soon. 

"But then the terrorist win"

Sure thing, but I'm staying alive. So no. They didn't win completely. There are plenty of other places to visit where the risks of death (or a worse fate) are smaller. Places were I can enjoy myself just as much, if not more, than I would in unreasonably dangerous parts of the world. This isn't to say I'm better or smarter. It's also not to equate vacation time with aid work.

Surely humanitarian workers deserve praise for their actions. They do, after all, help untold numbers of people every year and provide services to the most needy people in the world. We should all be disgusted and appalled by the awful situations they are sometimes forced to endure. It is cynicism in it's worst form and a testament to humanity's darkest side. But we shouldn't all be so shocked when appalling things happen in dangerous places. Our shock only betrays our own ignorance.