Today I read about another school shooting rampage in the United States, and it drove me to think again about the concept of safety in the world.
There are several places in the world where you face danger on a daily basis. These are places with war, civil war, famine, endemic disease or extreme natural hazard. If you avoid these few extremely dangerous places, you can live anywhere in the world, trusting that your safety is a matter of fate lottery. Even in places known for prevalent crime, I think you can still be reasonably safe if you avoid certain locations and use common sense.
I have lived for a few years in Johannesburg, known for its high crime rate, and also in Cape Town, dubbed in some circles as “Rape Town”. I think I survived by avoiding well-known trouble areas and night-time adventures. That does not mean I was completely exempted from exposure to crime. In Johannesburg, I fell victim (along with my then husband) to fraud. The well-planned operation resulted in loss of overseas money but that was a white-collar organized crime. In Cape Town, my precious laptop was stolen from my apartment, and I lost my wallet and its content on a bus, or to a pickpocket, I will never know. But in general I would say that I got off easily even in the most dangerous places in the world.
Nairobi feels safe to me in comparison to Johannesburg, Cape Town, and East London in South Africa, all of which are places I lived in. But I remember how concerned some of my friends were when I announced that I was moving there. The Westgate Shopping Mall Attack was still fresh then and everyone thought I was walking into some sort of a terrorist nest. I never felt any threat so far, but again this does not mean that the threat is not present. There will be an incident one day, it is not a matter of if, but when.
But even while we know that the terrorist threat is a reality, we cannot escape it in our interconnected world. It could happen in New York, Boston, Jerusalem or Nairobi. The perpetrators could be Boko Haram in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab in Kenya or anyone else. They could be brown or pale, Muslim or Christian. There are no rules, and nobody knows where it will hit next. Some of my friends argue that if it happens in New York or Boston the authorities there are more capable of dealing with the consequences. I agree, there are horror stories about police looting the shops in the wake of the Westgate Mall attack. But since 9/11 there were numerous other incidents in Western countries such as: London 2005 and then 2017, Brussels 2016, Madrid 2004, Barcelona 2017, Nice in France 2016, Berlin 2016, and this non-exhaustive list shows that both the reach and the means of the attacks have expanded to a degree that makes them impossible to predict. And I have not included any of the numerous incidents happening more frequently in the southern and eastern hemispheres. These always have higher fatalities but are less publicized as terrorism because they occur in places that are already suffering from other types of trouble such as civil strife or extremist activities. Some people also cynically point out that these are rarely publicized because their victims are “brown people” and therefore less important.
Terrorism is indiscriminate and has become universal in its reach. The perpetrators are becoming more complex and more difficult to point out and profile. Therefore it is near impossible to be completely protected against it. Anyone could fall victim to terrorism. I could have easily been a victim or a witness to the terrorist attack in the Christmas Market in Berlin in 2016, as I had planned to go there that evening and lazily opted to stay at home at the last minute. However, the traditional aim of terrorism is to disrupt the prosperous and normal life of citizens and governments who are seen, by the terrorist organizations, as benefiting unfairly at the expense of other nations in an unfair world order. Therefore western countries especially the USA will always be more attractive targets for international terrorism. Even their foreign missions away from home soil become targets. The US Embassy in Nairobi is located across the street from the United Nations headquarters and has the best security in the area, yet its presence does not promote a feeling of safety, but is rather a source of discomfort since it is perceived as a target. Many United Nations staff feel unsettled and unsafe by its close proximity.
Whereas terrorism in other places of the world thrives on chaos and failed governance, in the western world it will most likely spring out of a perfectly normal day or evening, so it is pointless to fear it or to be overly vigilant against it. And when it happens you will be killed by a harmless object like a car or an umbrella, in a normal place like a street market or a city square. None of your danger instincts will fire up in time to protect you, so there is no point in being paranoid.
The tragedy that I see is that most western countries spend a lot of time and money to combat this amorphous and shape-shifting terrorism monster while ignoring the danger within. Any healthy individual will feel fear at the sight of a gun or a machine gun. One of my uncles by marriage used to own a handgun, it was a perk of his elite status as a member of the ruling sect in my native country. When he visited my oldest aunt, his sister-in-law, he always unbuckled his handgun and placed it on top of the piano in the living room. I still remember my distaste at the presence of the object in the room, and I still do not know whether I was bothered more by the fact he carried a gun, or that he wanted to leave it out for us to see. I still do not understand the reasons for this action, but I think my deep dislike of him and his family can be traced back to that gun on the unsuspecting surface of the piano. My apathy to guns runs so deep that I never let my son with toy guns, not even water guns. I know that this is an extreme, I suspect that my son might have a pathological fear of guns, but I think that a fear of guns is less likely to kill him than a love for them.
I was still living in the USA when the Sandy Hook shooting happened in 2012. It was near the Christmas break, but when I took my son to his elementary school in the wake of that shooting, I remember a cold shiver of fear running down my back as I led him through the fortress of doors and dark corridors to his classroom. I remember thinking that there was nowhere to hide and no way to get out if someone decided to go on a shooting rampage. It is a different story at his school here in Nairobi with its open spaces and huge grounds. A healthy instinct could save him here, where it will be of no use in a closed and overly secured environment of his former school.
Yes, I do feel safer in Nairobi than I did in New York. And while we can easily agree that the concept of safety is relative. The feeling of safety is hugely subjective. A person with chronic fear of flying understands fully that she is more likely to get killed driving to and from the airport than on a flight, but she will still battle her phobia on board and feel perfectly safe in the car. You see, if something goes wrong on the aircraft you are certainly doomed, while if you were in a car accident you might have a chance.
Using similar logic, I think living in troubled area we are more likely to sense danger and run for the hills, we will have a chance. While if we fall victim to danger in the West we will get a big machine gun in a school or a speeding lorry in a crowd, something so unexpected that will dull our instinctive ability to anticipate danger and survive.
It is always safest to keep a sound instinct. A properly licensed gun has no limitation on its ability to take the life of an innocent victim, so it is best to avoid all guns as lethal and dangerous. A bullet will kill first and answer questions later.