On Nov. 23, the U.S. Department of State released a worldwide travel alert for all U.S. citizens. The warning followed the deaths of 194 people in just 24 hours on Nov. 12–13 — the result of confirmed Islamic State attacks in Paris, Beirut and Baghdad. Many found the attacks stunning not only for their death tolls, but for their complete lack of regional specificity. Taking into account the death tolls of an Oct. 10 attack in Ankara, Turkey, and the Oct. 31 bombing of a Russian airliner, Islamic State (ISIS) attacks had successfully targeted North Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe and Eastern Europe in just over a month. The worldwide travel alert confirmed what many already felt — that nowhere is completely safe.
Within governments across the world, repercussions have reverberated. The attacks have impacted U.S. presidential candidates’ platforms, attitudes towards the global Syrian refugee crisis and a renewed global commitment to combat terrorism. John Negroponte ’60, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute and a former U.S. representative to the United Nations, spoke about the macro-level policy changes that he believes may be coming: tighter border controls, a tougher approach on refugees, greater attention to the causes of “homegrown terrorism” and greater debate surrounding U.S. intervention in Syria.
But while tragedies of this scale force governments to respond on the policy level, they also deeply affect the lives of average citizens. An ocean may separate Yale from these acts of terrorism, but the attacks’ ripple effects have undoubtedly reached students.
The Yale community quickly took to social media to react with both outrage at the violence and sympathy for the victims of the attacks. Facebook added a temporary photo filter to demonstrate solidarity: a transparent French flag that could be superimposed onto a profile picture. A vigil for victims of worldwide attacks took place at the Women’s Table on Nov. 16, where dozens of artificial candles lit up Cross Campus.
As an institution with a significant global presence, where 10 percent of undergraduates are international students and 68 percent of the class of 2015 studied or interned abroad, the effects of events that occurred thousands of miles away felt personal.
Yale students studying abroad often live with host families tasked with providing housing, meals and a warm environment in a foreign place. Following the attacks in Paris, many students who studied abroad during their time at Yale thought immediately of their host families. Devyani Aggarwal ’18, who spent last summer studying and living with a family in Paris, said she immediately texted her host mother to make sure she was safe after she learned about the attacks. Elisabeth Rankin ’18, who also studied in Paris last summer, recalled feeling “utter shock” when she heard about the tragedy.
Selena Anjur-Dietrich ’17 is currently studying abroad in Paris and happened to be visiting friends in Barcelona on Nov. 13. The day after the attacks, she encountered a gathering of almost 100 French people holding a moment of silence and singing the French national anthem under Barcelona’s Arc de Triomf. Seeking “some kind of solidarity,” she said the scene made her yearn “to go back home” — home to Paris.
Since her return, she said the city has felt more reflective.
“The atmosphere is quieter, though from what I can tell this is more due to a drop in tourists than anything else,” she said. “[Yet] it’s [also] one of discourse — any visit to pay respects at the memorials around the city will end up in sincere discussions about what terrorism is, what Paris is, what these events do and don’t mean.”
Within 72 hours of the attacks, Yalies on campus staged a “Vigil for Solidarity” to honor victims in Paris, Beirut, Baghdad and Ankara. The vigil was jointly organized with La Société Française, the Arab Student Association, Yale Friends of Turkey, the Office of International Students & Scholars and the Chaplain’s Office.
Cordélia de Brosses ’16, the president of La Société Française and a Paris resident, spoke about the vigil and its significance to her.
“We wanted to show people who were affected by these attacks and who felt sad, upset or lost that they were not alone,” de Brosses said. “The idea of this vigil really followed the slogan ‘United, we shall overcome.’ In that solidarity movement, we also wanted to reaffirm the values we hold and which were targeted by these shootings.”
These public displays of solidarity go beyond in-the-moment pain alleviation. University President Peter Salovey — a psychologist who specializes in emotional intelligence — said that collective mourning can serve an important psychological function in facilitating the process of grief and healing.
Jason Lyall, a political science professor and the director for the Jackson Institute’s Political Violence FieldLab, mentioned the danger of “overreaction” to tragedies of this nature, including “pushing politicians to adopt sweeping surveillance powers that curb democratic freedoms.”
At the same time, he emphasized how solidarity events raise public awareness about global happenings, and the benefits of greater public attention.
Indeed, several students interviewed said they first heard about the lesser-publicized bombings in Ankara and Baghdad through campus solidarity events such as the vigil or the “wall of care,” a temporary memorial covered with signs and messages to those affected by the attacks, which student groups set up behind the Women’s Table at the vigil and that remained up for two weeks following the attack.
And, according to global affairs professor Robert Trager, emotional solidarity amongst citizens can also serve as a political tool on a more macro level.
“I think that if potential terrorists believe they will have a large effect on societies, they will be more likely to carry out attacks,” Trager said. “So continuing on as normal after an attack and demonstrating resilience and solidarity can have a strategic benefit, though the emotional processes of grieving and coping are the most important aspects of such practices.”
Three weeks out, for many students whose home countries were targeted, the pain of the attacks is still palpable.
Mevlut Ikiz ’17, a global affairs major from Turkey, said he is still reeling from news of an attack that received far less mainstream U.S. coverage than the Paris attack: ISIS’s bombing of an Ankara railway station on Oct. 16, which killed 102 people.
“Hearing about [the] attacks was completely paralyzing,” he said. “Once you pass the sorrow that you feel for all that is lost, you are just filled with anger — anger because you cannot understand why people committed this horror.”
Still, Ikiz said he holds out hope for the reconciliatory possibilities of solidarity events like the vigil. “Through these events, we remind ourselves that Islam does not condone violence, violence is not the answer, [the] appropriate response is not to create more Islamophobia.”
Abrar Omeish ’18, who is studying abroad in Jordan, described the differences in discourse about the attacks in the U.S. and Jordan, the latter of which is a Muslim-majority country. She said her classroom discussions in Jordan following the attacks have been free of guilt by association, which she called “a liberating difference” from her experiences in the U.S.
“It was so obvious to them that the acts of the insignificantly few do not reflect those of the overwhelming majority,” she said, adding that she worries that the attacks will fuel a new wave of Islamophobia and “that over one and a half billion people in the world will be incriminated for the acts of people they never knew or heard of.”
Indeed, many students expressed concern about the demonization of Muslims and Islam as a whole in the aftermath of the attacks, and have asked why we place a higher value on certain attacks than on others.
Jordan Lee ’17 studied in Israel and Morocco during the past two summers. He said he was disappointed in what he felt was an unequal response to the attacks in Paris versus the other attacks around the world.
“The fact that national monuments displayed the tri-color and my Facebook feed was filled with ‘#prayforparis,’ whereas there was no comparable reaction to the attacks in Beirut, implies that the French lives mean more than Lebanese lives,” Lee said.
Lee also felt this disparity from the White House’s response. He pointed to a statement from President Obama that referred to the Paris attack specifically as an assault on “our people.” Lee said this type of language implies that the French are “like us,” whereas other victims (who received no special mention from the White House) are not.
Others noted that attacks that take place in regions typically perceived as violent carry less weight because the regular violence can desensitize citizens as well as international observers.
Reem Hussein ’17 calls Beirut home. She said she believes that Lebanese citizens are afflicted by this indifference. She first learned about the pair of suicide bombings in the Lebanese capital — which killed 43 people — from a Lebanese friend at Yale, who texted her to check if her family was safe.
“I was having a conversation with my suitemate at that time, and did not want to react in a dramatic fashion, so I quietly looked up Lebanon on Google, found that the bombings were far from where my family lives, called my mom to make sure everyone was fine, and they were, and continued the conversation with my suitemate,” Hussein recalled. “I would say that between getting the text and looking up the location of the attack, I was worried, but I didn’t dwell on it too much after that. At this point in Lebanon, unless you directly lose something or someone in an attack, you don’t get shaken anymore. It’s so common that it’s no longer shocking.”
A GLOBAL YALE
The question of how we react to violence in different parts of the world has its roots in multiple elements. As Omeish earlier noted, there is the potential for conflating victims and attackers in the Middle East. It may also be a matter of which regions are more interwoven with our own lives and educations.
Ten out of 31 total Yale Summer Session programs abroad are in France, and offer classes ranging from French language to architecture to history to travel writing, with the non-language-related courses requiring no knowledge of French. For comparison, there are two Yale courses offered each in Spain — both of which focus on language — and Morocco.
William McGrew ’18 spent a year in Morocco on a State Department scholarship program to learn Arabic. He described his study abroad experience as an important chance to promote cross-cultural acceptance, which he called a necessity for expanding students’ global understanding and empathy. He said he now advocates for a more measured approach to U.S. interactions with the Middle East.
“Abandoning the Arab world is exactly what the extremists want, because they know that if we meet each other, we will choose cooperation over conflict,” McGrew said.
Still, it is not hard to imagine attacks discouraging students and their parents from paying hefty sums to send their children into potential danger.
Kelly McLaughlin, director of study abroad and deputy director of the Center for International and Professional Experience, said he feels fairly confident in international programs’ abilities to retain students, even after violent incidents. While he admitted that violent incidences that occur right as students are deciding whether or not to study abroad could immediately affect enrollment adversely, McLaughlin was quick to add that overall enrollment has stayed fairly constant in the long-run.
He said he believes that experiencing even the harsher realities of life in another country — while never putting a student’s safety at risk — is one of the greatest benefits of the study-abroad experience.
“Conflict and cooperation are some of the most relevant and global issues of our time, and experiencing them firsthand with healthy doses of critical reflection is almost certainly the best way to improve one’s ability to understand and navigate a complex world,” McLaughlin said.
And, at home, the question remains — how might international terror incidents affect institutions of higher education? Will they renew students’ commitments to academic exchange, in order to further cross-cultural compassion? Or might students from regions that weren’t attacked become more closed off to the rest of the world, viewing outsiders as threats?
Katherine Fang ’17, a global affairs major and on-campus activist with the Women’s Center, believes the recent attacks will serve as platforms for xenophobic rhetoric.
The role of higher education in shaping future leaders and policies should not be undermined.
Nelson Graves ’77 currently lives in Paris. A former managing editor at Reuters and founder of News-Decoder, an online news platform targeted towards young people, he also helped run the Johns Hopkins in Italy study abroad program from 2010 to 2014.
“Universities play a critical role. In the long term, they educate tomorrow’s leaders. In the short term, they provide a space for reflection and civil debate,” Graves said. “It’s absolutely critical that universities provide an intellectual framework for considering the issues.”
He added that rather than simply being prepared to deal with major world events, college students can and should begin to take concrete actions now through voting and pushing for refugee acceptance.
School of Management professor and Director of the Jackson Institute James Levinsohn believes that universities truly do have a large role to play. He said that Yale’s role as a research and teaching institution grants students the opportunity to better understand the world around them, and added that violence only highlights the need for learning about other cultures.
Edward Wittenstein ’04 LAW ’12, the director of international relations and leadership programs for Yale’s Office of International Affairs, said he sees potential for a galvanization of students’ interest in global affairs and politics. He called 9/11 — which occurred during his sophomore year at Yale — the impetus for taking more international relations courses and eventually working at the State Department. He said he has noticed a similar change happening in his students today.
“I do think there are a lot of Yale students who have become more interested in the topic of the crisis in Iraq and Syria, and an outpouring of students who want to help however they can in international affairs,” he said.
Nohemi Gonzalez was the only American killed in the attacks. She was a Cal State Long Beach senior who had taken the semester abroad in Paris to study design. She had been part of a team that took second place in global competition with their project: a biodegradable snack pack that could be turned into plant fertilizer. She wrote her college admission essay on what it meant to her to identify as Mexican-American and the importance of her mother in her life. She was shot outside La Belle Equipe bistro. It was her first time abroad.
In all, over 500 people have died internationally as a result of terrorist attacks over the last two months. It’s a staggering number. Tributes to victims have proliferated since the attacks, memorializing a victim’s name, biography, hometown, friends, hobbies and activity at the time of death. They read much like Gonzalez’s: short and tragic.
Still, Yale’s global influence, if it has any, remains unclear for many students.
“I do not believe that Yale’s status as an ‘international institution’ obligates it to respond to certain crises around the world — I think this view exaggerates how important Yale is in the global community,” Lee said.
While the tangible global impact of Yale students’ reactions to worldwide tragedies is negligible, the students I spoke with agreed that, across the university, there is a remarkable lack of cynicism — and that alone is heartening.
De Brosses recalled the myriad ways students have expressed solidarity — through attending the vigil, sending messages to friends and acquaintances and contributing to the “wall of care,” to name a few.
“I think showing respect to those who have been killed by terrorists by standing in solidarity with those who have died is important,” Salovey said. “It can make us feel empowered, as a group, in times when it is easy to feel helpless.”