As word of the Istanbul police’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters in Gezi Park swirled through the city on May 31, it became clear that this small protest was rapidly turning into something much bigger.
With each unwarranted teargas canister, it seemed that the crowd became more and more determined to show the police that they could not use this violence against the people of Istanbul. As the crowds rapidly multiplied and the police showed no signs of backing down, it was obvious that an already violent day was bound to escalate into a more chaotic and dangerous night.
That night, I shut my windows, locked my door, and anxiously monitored the protests on Twitter and through live stream video. The epicenter of the protests was a mere half-mile from my apartment.
Not all Americans stayed inside that night. Some knew of the danger and chose to run directly towards it. They did not go to the protests as journalists, nor did they go because they have a deep and urgent desire to protect democracy in Turkey. They went to the protests that night because of the danger. The protests offered an opportunity for adrenaline junkies to star in their very own video game — running through the backstreets of Istanbul, narrowly dodging a teargas canister, forging on despite the continuous barrage of water cannons, and so forth. The small group of Americans who participated in the protests in this manner is part of a troubling phenomenon of privileged Americans seeking exciting adventures in other countries’ serious conflicts. Conflict tourism, if you will.
Many of these Americans are probably genuinely concerned about the issues at stake. But if they are passionate enough about the cause to take a face full of teargas, why haven’t they joined smaller protests before Gezi? After all, on any given day before the Gezi protests you could find small groups of protesters on Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian thoroughfare stemming from Taksim Square, advocating for various causes. But there is something decidedly lackluster about joining a group of 20 activists, chanting and passing out fliers to people intent on having a pleasant afternoon of shopping. My informal survey of Americans involved in the protests, while far from exhaustive, indicated that this was the first protest in Turkey that any of them had attended.
This is not an isolated phenomenon. While the current protests in Turkey differ from the Arab Spring in both substance and scale, Americans sought out dangerous confrontations in Egypt and Libya as well. Chris Jeon, a UCLA student who went to fight with Libyan rebels on his 2011 summer break explained, “…I told my friends a 'sick' vacation would be to come here and fight with the rebels” in an interview with NBC News. That same year, three American students were arrested in Cairo for allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails from atop a building near Tahrir Square in the midst of deadly street confrontations.
These and other incidences of conflict tourism appear to be a twisted result of American privilege.
Americans have not had to cope with a conflict of comparable magnitude for many years. We are fortunate that, despite our own country’s innumerable problems with violence, we are able to live in a relatively safe and stable environment. To willingly walk (or in Jeon’s case, fly) into a violent conflict in which the locals have no choice but to live under dangerous circumstances reflects a macabre sort of self-indulgence.
A corollary privilege to the ability to enter foreign conflicts is the ability to leave them at any time. The difference between these Americans and their Turkish protester counterparts is that the Americans have a back up plan in the form of a blue passport. If any number of nightmare scenarios came true — if violence became even more widespread or prolonged — Americans could leave this country and never look back. For them, living in this country and under this government is a choice. For Turks, it is not.
Furthermore, American citizens are well aware that those blue passports bring them a certain level of impunity and protection, yet another thing that differentiates them from Turks. It’s true that this impunity has limits, but they cannot be beaten senseless, detained indefinitely, or murdered without sparking an international diplomatic crisis (recall the immense attention that the murder of an American tourist received from Turkish and American media and governments). This is a strange privilege enjoyed only by citizens of a handful of nations, and yet it informs how Americans act abroad whether they realize it or not.
I recently saw that an American acquaintance of mine had changed his Facebook profile picture to an image of him, triumphantly standing atop a smashed and graffiti-covered car, above the masses of Taksim Square. Though the symbolism was of course unintended, the picture represents everything that is wrong with this approach to other countries’ conflicts.
This is not a spectacle or an epic photo op. This is not a video game. This is not a great story you get to tell to all of your friends back home.
In fact, this is not about you at all.