Americans suffer from the dangerous inability to distinguish between discomfort and fear. In a guest column by editor abroad Naomi Massave ’04 titled “It’s scary to be an American in Madrid” (3/25), Massave describes witnessing anti-war protests post-war declaration. She concludes emphatically, “I have lost my sense of security, and I don’t think I’ll get that back.”
The night war was declared on Iraq, I was also in Spain. My Yale e-mail box was filled with worried messages from my mother wondering: Was she crazy for letting me travel in Europe at a time like this? Was I being safe? Maybe I should just hang out in my hotel for the next couple of days — But the next day as my friend and I tried on clothing at a crowded Barcelona department store, the only comment directed at our obscenely apparent nationality (those posh Europeans can always tell, we might as well have been wearing Mickey Mouse ears and American flag bikinis) was a teasing inquiry from the store clerk about whether or not we were against the war. When we responded yes, he giggled, “Good, I might have had to ask you to leave the store if you weren’t.”
Maybe I’m too sensitive. His comment made me a little uncomfortable. But I certainly didn’t lose sleep mourning any loss of a sense of security.
Could it be that terms like “axis of evil” or “Operation Iraqi Freedom” have programmed us to hold foreigners to a lower expectation of civility than we hold our fellow citizens here in the United States? Could it be that Sept. 11 has made us panic and feel vulnerable whenever we are treading foreign soil? It isn’t fair to blame our culture of xenophobia on diction or recent history alone. We have the news to blame as well.
In 2001, when the economy crashed and president Fernando de la Rua stepped down, I was taking a year off from school in Argentina. My friends wrote concerned letters saying they had been following the news coverage in the United States and were worried about me. When the United States refused to lend Argentina the money to aid them in their debt, graffiti reading “Death to all Yankees” began to appear all over the stone walls of government buildings. I was embarrassed and uncomfortable because I felt I was unfairly associated with a decision made by my country that I didn’t necessarily agree with but was expected to justify. I knew people might not like me when they noticed the “R”‘s in my accent that didn’t roll exactly right, but I wasn’t expecting riots outside my window.
News articles over the Internet made Argentina sound like a climate of tension, where any type of danger was possible. They didn’t capture any part of sad somber poverty that was becoming more prevalent in the streets. They exaggerated the truth so that it made a good story. My friends in the United States who were thinking of going abroad to Argentina withdrew from their programs. Parents poured over newspapers, thinking the crashing country must not be safe.
I did not fear for my safety in Spain. I did not fear for my safety in Argentina. We are so conditioned to being comfortable in the United States that in other countries we mistake discomfort for the threat of danger. We read news sources like Massave’s column and travel expecting to become victims of violence, or worse, we are so afraid we don’t travel at all.
I’m not disputing that in most countries Americans are unpopular. But to assume that our unpopularity would make us automatic targets for crime is an insult to the people of Spain. People in all foreign countries aren’t savagely waiting to rip us apart because we’re sporting fanny packs and flashing American passports at the airport. If you read that in the news, it’s probably because that makes a better story than the truth.
In Spain, I spoke Spanish trying to mask my North American accent. “Where am I from? Ummm — Argentina,” I would say, hoping the volume of the music or the conversation next to us would drown out evidence that I was an impostor. I did want to hide my nationality — not because of the attention I was afraid of getting were it revealed, but rather the lack of attention. I wanted to avoid that European snub I would receive when the person I was talking to discovered I was just another dumb American.
Hallie Haglund is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.