To all my friends in London who are reeling after last week’s attack outside Parliament: I see you. I mourn with you. And I want you to know — it’s OK to be afraid.
The day after the attack, your prime minister stood up in the House of Commons and said, “We are not afraid.” This slogan has since appeared on tube signs and billboards throughout the city and on Facebook profiles around the world.
And I get it. “We are not afraid” is a statement of defiance, a rallying cry in the face of our shared trauma and grief. It gives us something to hold on to after yet another horrifying attack in a world that was already scary as hell. I think it’s trying to say, “We won’t let the terrorists win.”
But “we are not afraid” is the wrong way to respond to terror. It’s not how we build a society in which love prevails over hate.
I’ve spent more than a decade living in Iraq. I see what ISIS is capable of. I witness the devastation caused by extremism and by the fight against it. I’m on the front lines and I walk past burned-out buildings and the bodies of recently killed ISIS fighters. I weep with families who are left in the dirt after fleeing their homes on foot and losing everything to violence.
A few days before the London attack, my team and I were serving inside west Mosul, bringing food to 12,000 besieged people as airstrikes and mortars rained down on three sides, targeting ISIS militants just streets away from us.
I was afraid. In fact, over the past 10 years of our team working in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, I’m regularly afraid. Because fear in the face of terror is normal, whether you’re on the streets of Mosul or the streets of London.
The problem is when we shame fear, when we drive it underground, when we normalize bravado and idealize the absence of fear — as if simply saying “we are not afraid” makes it so. How can you not be afraid of ISIS? How can you not be afraid of terrorism if you’ve lived through 9/11 or the attacks in London, Paris, Nice, San Bernardino, Baghdad or a hundred other places that have been torn apart by violence?
Fear is not our problem. Our problem is alienating those who feel afraid, making it harder for us to have healthy conversations about our fears. Fear driven underground metastasizes into bigotry and hatred and distrust of “the other.” It gives rise to the worst forms of populism — the kinds that pit “us” against “them” and consolidate blame onto a common “enemy” who may not look like us or pray the way we do or see the world exactly as we see it.
Terror is meant to traumatize and divide us. So the messages around which we choose to unify in the midst of our trauma are just as important as whether we unify at all. Saying “we are not afraid” is a shortcut to a false unity — we’ll pay a price for it in the end. It’s a short-term fix that causes long-term damage, because it keeps us from going to the core of what separates us from each other. This bravado prevents us from building a more robust society that is strong enough to not only withstand the next terror attack, but to actually unmake violence itself — to love terrorism out of existence.
Instead of telling people “we are not afraid,” our leaders should tell us the truth: You may be afraid. These are scary times. The world is scary as hell, and there may be more to come. But we will love anyway.
Because let’s be honest: Even if we could all keep a stiff upper lip and steel our hearts against fear, what would that accomplish for the world? To say “no fear” is to live by what we’re not. That’s not leadership. That’s just reaction.
Real courage is not found in the denial of fear. It’s when we choose to face our fear, take one step toward it, and love anyway.
Love means listening to the fears of those who are traumatized by terror, who are fearful of the next attack — instead of pretending these fears don’t exist or that they somehow make us weak. It means learning to have healthy conversations about what or who we fear and asking how can we help?
Love means listening to the fears of those who have become targets for reprisal or marginalization — as a direct result of the fear most of us pretend not to have. The hibaji woman who cannot walk down the street without drawing hostile stares, the refugee with the “Middle Eastern-sounding” name who wonders if he is truly welcome in his new home — love takes one step toward “the other.”
Pretending you’re not afraid might get you through today or the next day. But if you actually want to change the world you live in — if you want to walk through your fear, not just deny it — preemptive love is the only way.
This kind of love refuses to pit us against them. It refuses to put our well-being over and against the well-being of others. It says we belong to each other — fears and all.
Violence unmakes the world — and make no mistake: that is a scary thing. But preemptive love unmakes violence. And that’s the best way to defeat terror.
Jeremy Courtney is CEO of Preemptive Love Coalition, working on the frontlines in Iraq and Syria to protect the persecuted and displaced from becoming refugees, by delivering aid inside conflict zones and providing small-business empowerment. He is author of “Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a Time.”
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