“What if you run out of air?”
“Are you sure it’s safe to go to Cairo?”
“Don’t walk around Cape Town at night”
“Aren’t sharks dangerous?”
“La Paz is a bit sketchy, eh?”
“What if the rope breaks?”
“Orlando? Dude, you’re crazy…”
Ok, no one ever said that last one to me.
I’ve written and re-written this post many times in the last few days. It’s still not right. But I’m still tearing up when I think about them. Still getting angry when I think about why. Still too much in despair when I think about the future of gun violence in the United States, LGBTQ discrimination, legislated hate. So for now, I won’t write about them, I won’t write about why, and I won’t write about tomorrow. I’ll write about me – and how what happened in Orlando has shaken me in ways other attacks haven’t. See, I was in Paris a mile away from the Bataclan that Friday night, and I was in Sharm El Sheik a week before the MetroJet, and I was in Beirut just before a bomb destroyed the lives of people too much like me for my brain to reconcile. But this? This time it’s different.
This time I was half a world away in Cape Town South Africa, at a club, on a street, drinking and dancing and singing louder than I ever should. I was wearing a blue tank top, ripped jeans, and a South African Springbok rugby toque. When I travel, I party. I let loose. I take risks that I wouldn’t take back home. Most travellers do. From inside that Bree street club, I might have been in any club anywhere in the world. Even Orlando. People say I do risky things. In business talk, they’d say I have a large risk appetite – which to me sounds like I’m hungry for some street meat in Mogadishu. My tolerance for risk, people say, is very high. I disagree.
I think I’m just really good at calculating risk, and that I calculate a lower estimate of risk than most. This could be the hubris of youth, but I don’t think it is. I think 10 years of being a professional risk calculator (aka paramedic-turned-physician and world traveller) has strengthened an aptitude for teasing apart real versus perceived risks. Now, with my desire to live a joyful life competing with my desire to live a long one, my values certainly place adrenaline-releasing experiences over sitting on my couch crocheting. Still, I think my global travels have taught me lessons about risk that have honed my skills as a risk analyst.
Threats are everywhere, and they are measurable, or at least estimable, most of the time. Local violence is usually targeted – and not often (but sometimes) at foreigners. This is why I’ve walked through a crowded Cairo souk during Arab Spring riots but wouldn’t dare visit Mombasa for a beach vacation.
That’s why this weekend has shaken me. By most accounts, what happened in Orlando was a targeted massacre of gay people. Young gay people. Young gay people partying on a Saturday night. What happened in Orlando targeted me. Only I wasn’t in Orlando – I was in Cape Town. But I’ve been to Orlando at least half a dozen times, and on each of those trips I found myself in a club. Drinking. Dancing. Flirting. Not getting shot.
What happened in Orlando is unlike almost every other act of terrorism I’ve ever considered analyzing: it was targeted at me in a place I could have been.
I’m not sure how you feel about what happened in Orlando on Saturday night, but I feel like someone tried to kill me. Not for my wallet, or my hat, or my phone. Someone tried to kill me because I’m gay.
So what do I do now? What is an acceptable risk? And do I accept increased risks as a matter of principle – of not letting terror win – or stick to the objective (though highly value-weighted) math of estimating risk and then reconciling that estimate my risk appetite? Must I always be “op-on” – exploring everywhere I go with the persona and mentality of an operator? Can I ever really just relax? Travelling is my escape, my escape from a responsibility for making decisions that affect others directly.
Thoughts swirl in my mind as I reprogram my internal risk calculator. Is anywhere safe these days? Can I party on Church Street, sip cocktails on Ossington, hold hands in San Fran? Do I need to memorize the exits of every club as I enter, have back up plans for back up plans, carry a gun…
And there it is. There is the fear, the irrationality, the them-versus us attitude that terrorism and hatred strives to achieve. An Orlando gay club less safe than walking through a crowd of rioting Egyptians: everyone gear up. I’ll write about homophobia, discrimination, terrorism and how we respond to it soon. Right now, it makes me too angry to even think about.
Answers will come. More questions will swirl. Like the family and friends and community of those lost in Orlando, like every human being with a mind and a heart and a soul in America and the World, I can barely ask the questions. Who were they? What could they have been? Why on Earth? What now? Am I next?