On Tuesday morning, I woke up to news that the airport in Brussels, Belgium, was in shambles. Two bombs had exploded, killing an unknown number of people, and injuring more. I was in Vienna at the time, in the midst of a planned holiday—a whirlwind tour through four major European cities and five countries. I speak some German—or as my beau says, “adorable fake German”—but not enough to truly follow news reports or updates. When I’m traveling in a foreign country where I don’t speak much (or any) of the language, I depend on my emotional intelligence on picking up the moods of people around me to know what level my anxieties should be at.
In Vienna, that day, I rode back and forth on the underground, visiting some spots I’d hoped to see (only to discover they were closed on Tuesdays) and saw a lot of Veinnese life. One of my favorite things in any new city I visit is riding public transit, watching all the different cultural codes and cues that are taken for granted in a lot of ways (such as the different ways people disembark from trains and buses between England and Germany).
At about two in the afternoon, I was headed back to my hotel to rest for a little while. I was staying near the Westbahnhof and took the U3 in. I was sitting at one end of the car when I realized the train car had gone a little quieter and a little bit more tense. Two men in Sikh turbans had gotten on the train—I identified them as Sikh immediately because one of my good friends at Oxford grew up Sikh and we’ve spent a considerable amount of time talking about his childhood.
I sighed. I saw my fellow white people watch these men, but no one was doing or saying anything out of order. It was simply a mood I’d picked up on, and it’s really hard to call people out on a mood.
A bunch of us got off the train at Westbahnhof and headed toward the escalator. I’d disappeared back into my podcasts—I always stock up before a trip that involves a lot of train travel—when I heard a lady screaming, “POLIZEI!” She was a few feet ahead of me, having just gotten on the escalator. She was gripping her headscarf, and shouting at a white man on the stairs. I was taking the stairs a few steps behind him, and I immediately took in everything I could about his appearance. He was a hulking man, 6’3” or 4”, wearing brightly colored green and black tennis shoes, tan trousers, and a green army-style jacket. His hair was buzzed, but not in military style—it seemed more haphazard than that. And he appeared to be trying to avoid everyone’s gaze as the woman shouted in rapid German about what he’d done.
From what little German I know, he hadn’t stolen from her or anything. Rather, he’d touched her inappropriately (which, on a subway, is anything beyond an accidental bump). From the adjustment of her scarf, I’m guessing he tugged or pulled on her headgear.
My first thought was that the attack in Brussels was already radiating out to other major cities.
I thought back to my day in London a few weeks ago, when I had a free afternoon and went up to the Whitechapel/Shoreditch area. When I came out of the subway, I discovered that I was a minority in a heavily Muslim area—women in full head and face coverings shopped at the street market with their children, going about their every day business. As a white American from a small town in the Midwest, I realized that while I’d gotten used to the headscarf and hijabs that some of my classmates at Oxford wear, I’d not actually seen a woman wearing a full burqa until now.
I can’t speak to European sentiment about the terrorist attacks or the ways in which European society should or should not react in the wake of these ongoing terrorist activities. I am not European. As acclimated as I’ve become to British governance and politics and culture, I am not British. I am a white American woman from the Midwest, who grew up in an incredibly homogenous culture of mostly white people at mostly white schools in mostly white churches. My town has one synagogue, one Greek church, and, as far as I know, no mosques. I can’t tell Europeans how they should feel about something any more than they can tell me how to hunt deer responsibly.
But I can speak to how humans should be treated, and I can emphatically say that whatever that white man did to that woman on the subway was wrong. And I can also emphatically say that the tension felt when Sikh men walk onto a subway train tells me that we have a lot further to go. AND, I can emphatically say that my own reactions to see women in full religious clothing needs some work—surprise should not be my first feeling.
There’s still a lot of work to be done and it starts with the recognition of the humanity of others, the recognition and examination of our own privilege in the wake of terror. I don’t begrudge Europeans for their feelings of insecurity and resentment following the series of attacks they’ve suffered in the past few years. But I do want to hold them to a higher standard of human interaction, one which recognizes that Europe is a diverse, beautiful place full of diverse, beautiful people, and responding to violence with violence toward fellow humans does no good.
We are all better than this.