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Travel in an age of terror

It may not change the world but travel changes the way you think and helps builds a universal family. This is its unique strength, and yours. Use it.

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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TERROR IS AN ODD BEAST. We pay to seek it on vertiginous thrill rides and in dark movie theatres where the only sound track is the crunch of popcorn and smothered screams. Some climb mountains or leap off bridges secured by just a strap of nylon. Others brave insurmountable hazards and fatigue in the stratosphere of human endurance just because something “is there” – an untamed peak, a trail, a dog-eared map. As a vicarious thrill, terror is an unassailably potent adrenalin shot.

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Now terror, raw and lethal, is among us. Not just in the distant hovels of Palestine where kaffiyeh-wrapped youths hurl rocks with wearying monotony at Israeli armour, or in the fetid bowels of a Rio favela. Not just on a TV screen where parachute journalists offer their own equally wearying reality shows, the body count buried under cinematic gloss. Fear stalks our homes and our street corner markets and cafes. It has invaded ivory-tower five-star hotels ringed by metal detectors and sniffer dogs that can probably tell whether your underwear is fresh. Nowhere is impenetrable. Mumbai proved that.

Terrorism is not an Islamic phenomenon. Christians, Hindus, Catholics and Jews have all cast about with murderous intent for ages...

Taj, and Oberoi, proud bastions of Indian hospitality stand bloodied, if unbowed. Before them was the Islamabad Marriott. And before that were Jakarta, Bali, Sinai, and Deir el-Bahri, Luxor, now fading crescendos on a vast continuum of savagery. But whether it’s sacrilege at the Temple of Hatsepshut, the unspeakable misery of a Jewish child crying for its slain parents in Mumbai, or grieving families burying young military men, what is certain is, more, and worse, will follow.

That a poor farmer’s son from Punjab, Pakistan, can leave a carpet of bullet casings in a Mumbai landmark and confound the might, however clumsy, of a country’s military juggernaut for three whole days, shows clearly that terror has graduated from mundane birdshot to ballistic missile – precise, planned, guided, targeted. It is orchestrated by well-oiled structures feeding on disaffection, slights – perceived or real – and the seeming impotence of people to rise from poverty, racial discrimination, or the ravages of “colonialism”, old or new. Frequently, it is just crime, with no wrapper of mitigating sophistry, as in the case of the Somalia pirates holding people and cargo to ransom from the Gulf of Aden to Mogadishu.

The purpose of terror – at least in the jihadi sense – is to cause panic and sow disarray, to fracture society, to hobble the economy, and to point accusatory fingers at the Evil West. In its purest Wahabi form it militates against all forms of eclecticism and inclusivity, even within Islam. It bears a medieval imprimatur of simple God-given rules with no leeway for dissent.

It is important to make two distinctions. First, despite the stereotype, terrorism is not an Islamic phenomenon. Terrorists are not all Muslims. Nor are all Muslims terrorists. Christians, Hindus, Catholics, and Jews, have all cast about with murderous intent for ages, cutting down those with dissimilar ideologies. Second, it is an expression – as in most forms of extremism – of a radical minority. Terror has never been or will be the weapon of choice for the middle classes, moderates, and those with a stake in a future. It is an expression, almost a lifestyle as it were, of mindless intent, by a few deracinated people reattached, Frankenstein-like, to false creeds and myths.

People travel to revel in diversity, the exact opposite of the blinkered, unitary terrorist creed. This is the unique power of travel...

A sociologist might well view it as a rebellion against authority and structure in much the same way as a teenager fights because it is in the genes. It is part of growing up. And then it passes.

The world is growing up. The strains are apparent everywhere, from Kashmir to Georgia. The new world order – with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a saber-rattling America under Bush – has abetted, but not caused, the growing conflagration. The USA has emerged an unlikely bete noir, providing a sharp focus for a welter of causes. Orchestrators of this new world misery might smile with every life taken but their schadenfreude is misplaced. If there’s one thing history has taught us, it is this – in the end, violence consumes its makers.

As the world grows up it is time for people to do the same. To continue to go about their daily business, unruffled, albeit with safeguards and armed with generous doses of circumspection and common sense. To retreat into fear is to surrender and abandon the moderate middle ground. Travel provides precisely the sort of cross-pollination of ideas as well as infusions of money that strengthen under-privileged and backward areas. Not surprisingly, tourism is the mainstay of several Asian economies and is no longer viewed as a frivolous addendum.  People travel to see things that are different, to revel in diversity, the exact opposite of the blinkered, unitary terrorist creed. This is the unique power of travel.

Travel counters isolation and promotes a sense of the universal family, linking people to each other. The more we understand about each other the less likely we are to strap on a stick of dynamite and head off to end the world. Travellers have a profound stake in the world for it is their retreat. Use it, see it, preserve it. Travel safe. But do travel.

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