Recent devastating events in Paris remind us that the world is uncertain and at times dangerous. To date, at least 129 people died as a result of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris. More than 340 people were injured, and some remain in critical condition.
Sadly, events like the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris occur across the globe. All of us are vulnerable. Unless we decide to completely shelter ourselves from the rest of the world, our risk for being harmed by violence will never be zero.
I was personally reminded of how vulnerable we all are after the September 2013 al-Shabaab attacks in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, near where my friends, human rights and medical colleagues, and I work to secure care and justice for sexual violence survivors. It was a mall where my friends and I frequently had coffee. At least 67 people were killed and more were wounded in the attack.
My human rights colleagues and I know that there is a risk anytime we work in an area of conflict or unrest. But individuals most vulnerable to acts of terror are those who live every day in unstable places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Recently there have been calls from members of Congress and others to reverse policies that allow people to seek refuge in the United States, particularly Syrian refugees fleeing violence created by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Islamic State.
But we cannot let fear squelch our courage and compassion.
In a recent press conference from Turkey, President Barack Obama cautioned against allowing fear to crush our compassion and generosity as a nation. He applauded Germany Chancellor Merkel for taking “a very courageous stance in saying it is our moral obligation, as fellow human beings, to help people who are in such vulnerable situations.”
As the president pointed out, the screening process for attaining refugee status in the United States is very rigorous. It can take years before someone seeking asylum arrives in the United States.
In reality, people who live in places of conflict and unrest are far more likely to be victims than those of us living in democratic, free, and open societies. I‘ve met many of these victims when I’ve been asked to evaluate them for forensic evidence of torture.
Recent history can be very instructive as we consider how to move forward.
In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Bush Administration reversed decades of progress against torture. Driven by fear, members of Congress, political pundits, and Ivy League professors also mobilized to justify torture.
But on December 9, 2014, the United States Senate Intelligence Committee finally released a report addressing the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of torture tactics. In its report, the Committee concluded that the Central Intelligence Agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective way to acquire intelligence or gain prisoner cooperation. There was no clear evidence that the terror tactics saved lives. The Committee also found that the techniques were far crueler than what had been disclosed to policymakers and the public.
After the Senate Intelligence Committee report was released, Senator John McCain, a former prisoner of war and torture survivor, said, “I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence…But, in the end, torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are, and who we aspire to be.”
The definition of terror is extreme fear. Terrorism is defined by violence committed by a person, group, or government in order to frighten people and achieve a political goal.
If we succumb to fear and change our principles and laws, terror wins.
Now, the challenge before us is to garner the courage to create more peace and security in the world without being seduced by fear.