In 1999, I was a junior in high school. That spring, the news was dominated by the NATO bombing of Serbia. One BBC report in particular struck me viscerally: people in Belgrade, protesting their government’s policies, and mine. A girl my age said simply, “Please, please, stop bombing us.” A day or two later, the Columbine massacre made headlines. The next morning, my school began the day with a reflection. It spoke of the Columbine students, their fear and pain, and ended with the line, “You were just like me.” But that Belgrade teenager still haunted me, her fear and pain, and I could not shake the thought that she, too, was “just like me”. I refused to believe her life was worth less than that of an American teenager.
This became a turning point in my life. It made me an inveterate writer of letters to newspapers and my representatives. It led me to study international relations, and pursue a PhD in political science. It made me a passionate opponent, not only of war, but of all the people, ideologies and media reports that suggest the life of someone in another country is worth less than mine, that “they” are not “just like me”.
7 years later, in 2006, I finally traveled to Serbia, staying with one of my best friends. Bojana too had been a teenager during the NATO war, and at an age when my biggest concerns were SATs and prom dates, she was cowering in her basement, praying one of my government’s bombs didn’t fall on her. Confronted with the ruins of bombed-out buildings and memorials to victims of “collateral damage”, I felt guilt and shame at what had been done in my name.
I think of another best friend. He prepares amazing salads, mixes great cocktails, and always makes me laugh. He too is “just like me”. But lately, many of our conversations are no laughing matter. Ali is Iranian. He is studying abroad, but his family, his friends, his past and future, his home, are still in Tehran. He is an atheist, liberal, apolitical, he despises his government; but he loves his country. Ali is scared to death at the prospect of a war with the US. And I am scared too, and angry. It seems everywhere in the media, there are voices telling me that his life, and his death, don’t matter, are worth less than mine, that “he” is not like me. I refuse to accept this.
Sometimes I despair, because my voice is lonely these days, sometimes I feel like I am trying to turn back a tide of ignorance and fear and groundless hate. But I take comfort in my friends, whatever their nationality or religion, and I try to take comfort in what I believe.
I believe that “collateral damage” is the ugliest phrase in the English language. I believe Ali’s and Bojana’s lives are worth just as much as mine. I believe “they” are “just like me”.
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