This is what years of counter-terrorism conditioning by society does to you.
A message came into my inbox. A reader had a question.
Then I saw in big, bold letters the word “Afghanistan.”
As a teenager, September 9, 2011 changed me. On that fateful day, the Afghani kids at my high school were locked in a classroom and kept away from the other students, out of fear the other students may retaliate against them.
I remember watching the start of the Afghanistan war with a bowl of popcorn. It was hard to tell the difference between a Hollywood movie and a real-life war. We celebrated in our living room as the bombs dropped. Looking back, we had no idea how silly we were being.
War isn’t funny. War isn’t entertainment.
So, when I got a message from a man in Afghanistan, I became curious. What is life like in Afghanistan after so many years? A bizarre request came into my mind.
“Hey, could you tell me about Afghanistan?” Actually, can you send me photos of what life is now like in Afghanistan?”
The man didn’t think my request was weird. He took a few days to come back to me. In my inbox one morning, was a collection of photos from Afghanistan.
The Little Girl with the Scar
One photo is etched in my memory for eternity. I dare not share this photo with you out of respect for the little girl. It’s a photo of a girl about 6-years-old. She is sitting next to her brother. The right side of her face is covered in (still) bloody marks. She looks scared.
The look on her face could tell the entire story of the Afghanistan war if she wanted.
The marks on her face are scars from the war. It’s a hard photo to look at because when we think of war, we rarely think of wounded children soldiers. What I thought would be nice tourism photos of Afghanistan were anything but that. The man sent me a few more photos. They showed busy streets full of cars and people trying to get on with their lives.
One photo caught my attention. The photo showed what appeared to be empty land with rubbish on it. In the middle of the land was a few people lying down. There were people sitting beside them. They appeared to be mourning the loss of these people’s lives. I could feel their grief through the photo. It looked as if a bomb might have killed them, or they had died in a gunfight.
In the midst of all the photos is one of a hair salon. The hair salon has bright graphics of men getting their hair cut and looking sharp. The hair salon shows the normality amongst the far from normal life the Afghanis live.
Getting Out of the Western World Bubble
I try and get out of my western world bubble as much as possible. I decided to ask the man who sent me the photos if I could interview him. He was more than happy to talk with me.
I locked in the interview and sent him an email invite. The day before the interview I watched the movie The Mauritanian, based on a true story about an Afghani man who was arrested and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay.
The movie had a negative effect on me. All of a sudden, communicating with a man in Afghanistan felt like an act of treason. I had last-minute doubts about the interview. Thirty minutes before the due time, I went back and looked at the chat history.
One word stood out: Taliban.
He spoke this word in relation to the battle between soldiers and those blamed for terrorist attacks. It gave me shivers. I panicked. So, fifteen minutes before the interview I canceled it. Fear of the unknown got to me. I’m a law-abiding citizen who likes to stay away from anything that could remotely be blown out of proportion.
Social media apps listen to our conversations and monitor our every word. I got accidentally banned from LinkedIn for wishing Biden all the best in the election. This reality seeps into my everyday life, sometimes, without me realizing it.
I feel weak for canceling on the Afghani man. A simple google search shows he is a decent man who is part of the peaceful solution, yet I bailed on him.
What caused this flawed thinking?
Years of counter-terrorism conditioning forced me to be fearful of Afghanistan. I grew up as a young adult in the finance world. In finance, terrorism left behind two realities:
- KYC (Know Your Customer) — KYC was introduced in 2001 as part of the Patriot Act. The point of the regulation is for banks to be able to identify and know who their customers are. One of the reasons is to identify terrorists.
- AML (Anti-Money Laundering) — AML standards were strengthened in 2001 to help fight terrorism financing. AML is where a bank monitors all transactions and looks for anything suspicious. If a suspicious transaction or pattern is found, it’s the bank’s job to report the activity to the regulator.
As a banker for most of my career, these two compliance standards are ingrained in everything you do. They are a part of your financial career. If you mess them up, you risk your job and everything you’ve worked for.
It’s no wonder I’ve been trained to jump at terrorism shadows.
Then as a frequent traveler, I’ve become used to terrorism checks and excessive airport security. When you layer over the Iraq war, you start to see how a person like me can become unnecessarily fearful of an entire part of South-Central Asia.
Is the Afghanistan War Over?
I had to google the question. I mistakenly thought the war had mostly ended. It’s not even close to being over, according to the global conflict tracker that reports on the status of wars.
Despite this new [US Peace] agreement, there is still no official cease-fire in place.
War kills a lot of people. It often doesn’t fix the root problem or bring peace — only more war.
They say the story you must write is the one you’re afraid of. I may have walked away from an interview with a man in Afghanistan, but I sure learned a lot in the process as to why I panicked.
It’s my goal to do the interview and write the story. I just have to get over years of terrorism conditioning to do so.
If you have access to the internet, then you’re already doing incredibly well. Spending time outside of the luxury of the internet safety bubble is where you’re challenged to question your beliefs and see how life is for people who are nothing like you but share your human evolutionary roots.
Curiosity leads you to challenge what you know and that’s beautiful. War helps you see another side of life you might be afraid to learn about.
I Attempted to Discover What Life Is Now Like in Afghanistan (and Failed) was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.