I have not yet heard back from a friend in Sierra Leone. I wrote to him after the devastating mudslide on the outskirts of Freetown early on the morning on August 14. I’m not too worried though. He is serving as a magistrate, working to construct a judiciary that advances human rights. I don’t think he would have lived in the shacks on the side of a hill. I don’t think he was poor enough to be a victim of that act of terror that left so many hundreds dead and threw a country into deep mourning.
An act of terror in Sierra Leone? Was this a terrorist attack? Were not all those who perished victims of heavy rains and the mudslide they caused victims of nature’s random wrath, not the violence of a perverted ideology?
This terror was indeed of another sort. It lacks a defining feature of terrorism, the malevolent intent of terrorists, to kill and maim and cause the terror and fear that come from guns, bombs, knives, speeding cars, exploding planes. But this other terror bears more similarities to terrorism than may first appear. Not caused simply by inevitable random act of nature, it too has human roots. It too has perpetrators who bear responsibility and have worldviews that enable these horrors. It too has a set of victims who are not as random as it may appears. And as with terrorism, there is much we can do to mitigate the harm caused, and even to help avoid the terror altogether.
This is the terror experienced by the families of Freetown, by the 230,000 killed in the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and those still struggling to rebuild, and by those who could not escape Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Why did they live where they did, where they would be the ones who perished and suffered? Why were least likely to escape nature’s course? The victims of these “natural disasters” share the common bond of being people living in precarious situations, with the fewest means to escape or live otherwise.
The victims of the Sierra Leone mudslide, which likely killed some 1,000 people, had been pushed to Freetown’s edge as the city’s population swelled, creating informal settlements (aka slums) of “mud huts and corrugated steel shelters” (or “little shacks and tin houses,” by another account). No one should have had to live there. An environmental group had warned of the dangers and even planted trees to try to prevent just this sort of disaster, but as the group’s leader later observed, “People, especially those with political influence, built houses in the very areas where we planted the trees.” The Sierra Leone mudslide came two days before a similar disaster in the fishing village of Tora in a northeast province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, killing at least 150-200 people.
In Haiti, the fact that a strong earthquake struck so near the capital city of Port-au-Prince was a precondition of the enormous death toll, but that did not make it inevitable. The type of housing that most of the victims lived in was the other necessary factor – “poor and densely packed shantytowns and poorly constructed buildings” – the housing of the poor. And with corruption leading to shortcuts in construction, the housing was even worse than it would have otherwise been. Better construction could have “lowered the death toll enormously.”
And we remember the story of New Orleans. Who did not escape before portions of the city was laid to waste by the rising waters? Overwhelmingly, people who were black, less well educated, poor. They were the people without cars, people whom the city left behind. A disproportionate number suffered from some disability. Many of those who died were elderly. And as Hurricane Harvey pours rain and fear upon Houston and surrounding areas, people in poorer communities of color, people with disabilities, undocumented immigrants, and people who are homeless face the greatest risks.
Surely all these victims felt terror, those who woke to the roar of an encroaching mountainside only to have their own lives silenced in moments, those who experienced the world shaking before their world crumbled, those who watched the waters’ rapid rise but had no place to run to, no means of escape. They are representative of a more common terror not born of sudden cataclysms, but rather the daily terrors of parents who do not know whether their child can survive another day without food or drinkable water, of the mother who does not know whether she will survive the birth of her child, born in the worst of conditions, of the family whose members fear for their lives when stepping into the violent streets outside their homes but who cannot afford to live anywhere else.
Terrors come in many forms. We read most often of the terrors experienced by people targeted by their associations to certain symbols of power or economic engines – the World Trade Center in New York, the Parliament in the United Kingdom, the cafes and hotels of the middle- and upper-classes, or wealthier tourists, in Burkina Faso and Bangladesh, people attending the Bastille Day celebrations in France, and now walking along with other tourists and residents on Las Ramblas in Barcelona. The awfulness of this terrorism cannot be overstated, the dozens, hundreds, thousands of lives extinguished, virtually instantaneously, after an unthinkable moment of panic, or after prolonged suffering, victims of a cruelty that is difficult to comprehend.
We pay attention not only because of the shocking levels of depravity behind these attacks, but also because we see ourselves in the victims of these attacks. We pay less heed, too often, to terrorist attacks that are further removed from most of our lives, in countries where they seem to form a frightfully regular backdrop to daily life, in countries and regions experiencing war and conflict, like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria. As for those other terrors, without such clear perpetrators – for who is responsible for poverty, much less a random act of nature? – these seem to exist in a separate category altogether.
Yet not unlike terrorist attacks, the victims of this other sort of terror are not randomly selected. Only instead of being foreigners or people of the wrong religion or sect or people of a particularly hated country, they are poor and have little economic and political power. And though there is no mastermind criminal plotter or man with a gun or driving a truck, no readily identifiable twelve person terror cell, no organization of terror or hate to which they belong or that claims credit for the carnage, still there are perpetrators who bear much responsibility. They are those who contribute to the systems that perpetuate poverty and marginalization – individuals and groups who hold political and economic power but fail to use that power to redress these injustices, and through their policies and actions (and perhaps corruption), only serve to reinforce them. And they also hold ideologies and worldviews that drive their actions, a perverted understanding and acceptance of a world that allows deep inequalities to persist, perhaps even some sense of superiority, if not of race or religion, than of us over them, of me over you.
So as we look to prevent future acts of terror, let us consider both kinds of terrors – those stemming from hate and the noxious ideology of superiority of one’s race, religion, or ethnicity over another, but also the terrors that originate in social, political, economic, and environmental injustices, terrors born of indifference, of the misuse and misapplication of power, of wealth and greed, and of the all the root causes of poverty. Both terrors reflect a lack of humanity, compassion, and empathy, and an indifference to the value of human life. The solutions in each case are different, but the urgency to act decisively and quickly is ubiquitous and constant. As we commit to doing all we can to prevent another Charlestown, another Barcelona, more bombs in Baghdad and Kabul, let us also commit to doing all we can to prevent another Freetown, another Tora, and the too frequent terrors of poverty that they tragically — but not inevitably — represent.