The Road to Dystopia: Why we must keep traveling

dys·to·pi·a (dĭs-tō′pē-ə)
n.
1. An imaginary place or state in which the condition of life is extremely bad, as from deprivation, oppression, or terror.

thefreedictionary.com

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The iconic symbol of Paris: The Eiffel Tower.

It was already midday in Paris when I turned on the morning news to learn of the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper offices. The network news programs were already streaming live footage from the streets of Paris and replaying the now all too familiar shaky amateur video taken from above the news offices being attacked below. We see two black clad and masked men carrying military style automatic weapons calmly stepping out of a tiny car, stopping to retrieve a fallen shoe, before executing an injured police offer lying on the sidewalk nearby. He raises his hand in surrender before the assassin fires. The American media save us from the traumatic conclusion and cut away before we see the actual crime.

I hit the mute button on the tv to allow myself a minute to digest yet another moment of senseless carnage all too mind numbingly common since 2001. The next morning, we will sit ringside again to a live kosher grocery store shooting, and the final stand of the calm brothers from the day before.

Retrieving another cup of coffee from the kitchen, a moment later I returned to the now silent images playing out on the screen. I looked up in time to see dozens of young people, dressed in black and holding weapons nearly identical to the killers in Paris. I saw rapid cuts of them shooting wildly at some unknown enemy, fire flaring from the muzzles with bullets shells streaming away. It took me a second to realize, I was thankfully not watching a newscast, but a commercial for the movie, Insurgent-a sequel to the young adult book trilogy, Divergent. My teenage son has read all the books and watched the first movie last summer. The series is set in a futuristic dystopian Chicago where society has divided into five factions: The honest, the brave, the intelligent, the selfless, and the peaceful. Presumably, one cannot have more than one favorable characteristic in the future as determined naturally by a standardized test.

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Scene from the upcoming teen movie, “Insurgent” where girl meets gun, girl loses gun, girl finds gun again.

Does the meteoric rise of dystopian young adult literature and movies-the Hunger Games, Maze Runner, Dream Catcher, and The Giver reflect our worries and fears of society or help to magnify them? Do young people feel more hopeless about the future than we did our own? For the most part, my peers and I were optimistic as teenagers. That era too was arguably  less complex in important ways with few of the fears all people today must consider, and often in the mundane settings of a school, a movie theater, a shopping mall, or grocery store.

Like common fire or tornado drills of the past half century, elementary school children today are routinely taught how to better survive attacks to their classrooms by armed intruders. Duck and Cover, has graduated from the fear of Soviet ICBM’s to the worries of  committed individuals with Bushmasters and Glocks getting past the security guard out front. A clever teacher at an Alabama middle school has armed her students and their desks with canned goods to hurl at would be assassins. Death by fruit cocktail.

The fear of flying for most people centers now less on the mechanical integrity of modern airplanes than it does on the person seated next to you. As we were just reminded in Paris, stopping by the shop midday for a loaf of bread could get you killed. In Sydney a few weeks ago, chocolate could be your undoing.

Have the dire predictions of a desensitized citizenry, raised on ever increasingly realistic and violent video games and movies, depicting not only violence but cruelty and apathy, finally gotten ahead of us as a society? Is it even possible to change this trend? Does art imitate life or are we only encouraging fundamentalists, fanatics, and the deranged to increasingly make their points through wholesale violence on the most vulnerable members of our society, more often in front of a captivated audience?

“Will fewer of us spend our holidays exploring the world and discovering for ourselves the Colosseum, the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower? Will our huge 4k curved tv screens be ‘good enough’ for visiting the Grand Canyon?”

Bread and Circus: Does our media approach to terrorism, school shootings, beheadings of kidnapped aid workers, and tragedy of all kinds prevent us from feeling anything but the need to recoil and withdrawal? The rise of ISIS and other fundamentalist groups has brought with it an increasingly sophisticated and stylized visual message, complete with professionally made propaganda reels, press releases, and social media updates. Somehow, North Korea, the world’s most primitive and technologically isolated of places, nearly brought Sony Pictures to its knees by compromising its computer data and threatening violence over a mediocre satirical movie. Even the US Central Command had their Twitter and YouTube accounts hacked with threats toward military families this week.

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Ground Zero in New York City, and new home to the 1 World Trade Center, and the 9/11 Museum.

The millions of French citizens who bravely took to the streets in Paris and other places, assembled in solidarity to show terrorists they were unwilling to trade safety for liberty. Charlie Hebdo ran their largest newspaper print ever today, complete with a satirical cartoon on its cover sure to offend many people. Will there be more consequences for exercising free speech and the right to disagree? There seems little doubt.

Americans after 9/11 reacted too with more often than not, compassion and unity as all free people must, punctuated by the recent opening of One World Trade Center, quite literally built on the bones and ashes of the twin towers’ site. Do these symbolic gestures, as vital as they are to a free society, makes us feel any more secure? Will you travel less this year or in the future because of fear? Will fewer of us spend our holidays exploring the world and discovering for ourselves the Colosseum, the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower? Will a Blu-Ray on our huge 4k curved tv screens be ‘good enough’ in place of a real trip to the Grand Canyon?

The past decade and a half has been unkind to those of us who crave, albeit need to travel. Not to be confused with a vacation or a holiday, true travel is much less about comfort and security as even a trip to Disneyland could send you home with a case of the measles. Travel takes grit and the ability to step into the unknown, walk down unfamiliar streets, and to place at least some trust in strangers. Despite the very real risks of traveling in the era of vanishing Malaysian airplanes, random violence on the beaten path, underwear and shoe bombs, we will keep on packing our bag and exploring anyway. Some of  you will retreat to the comfortable screens in your hands and view the world at a safe distance, but I hope not. Your passport will reveal your decision.

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