There are, swirling about us minute by minute, eternal battles. Good vs. evil and theory vs. reality among the most consequential, and among the most dangerous:
Asked why they had quit their office jobs and set off on a biking journey around the world, the young American couple offered a simple explanation: They had grown tired of the meetings and teleconferences, of the time sheets and password changes.
‘There’s magic out there, in this great big beautiful world,’ wrote Jay Austin who, along with his partner, Lauren Geoghegan, gave his two weeks’ notice last year before shipping his bicycle to Africa.
They were often proved right.
It’s a familiar story: leave the impure world of toil, profit and loss, just another drone in the machine, and find oneself, find freedom, become one with the universe which is good and loving!
On Day 319 of their journey, a Kazakh man stopped his truck, said hello and handed them ice cream bars. In a meadow where they had pitched their tent on Day 342, a family showed up with stringed instruments and treated them to an open-air concert. And on Day 359, two pigtailed girls met them at the top of a pass in Kyrgyzstan with a bouquet of flowers.
There were hardships, too, including punctured tires, snarling dogs, freezing hail and illness. But for Mr. Austin and Ms. Geoghegan, both 29, these were far outweighed by moments of human connection.
Then came Day 369, when the couple was biking in formation with a group of other tourists on a panoramic stretch of road in southwestern Tajikistan. It was there, on July 29, that a carload of men who are believed to have recorded a video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State spotted them.
A grainy cellphone clip recorded by a driver shows what happened next: The men’s Daewoo sedan passes the cyclists and then makes a sharp U-turn. It doubles back, and aims directly for the bikers, ramming into them and lurching over their fallen forms. In all, four people were killed: Mr. Austin, Ms. Geoghegan and cyclists from Switzerland and the Netherlands.
Two days later, the Islamic State released a video showing five men it identified as the attackers, sitting before the ISIS flag. They face the camera and make a vow: to kill ‘disbelievers.
Because this is a New York Times story, it will not surprise you, gentle readers, to learn–according to other news accounts–that the Islamist thugs had not killed Austin and Geoghegan by running them over. They used knives to finish the job. How would the Islamist killers have known they were not believers? Western bikes, western clothing, they looked the part of infidels. That would have been more than enough. Kill them first and let Allah sort it out. The NYT couldn’t avoid at least partially identifying the killers, but one just can’t make Islamist beasts look too beastly, now can one?
It was a worldview as diametrically opposed as imaginable to the one Mr. Austin and Ms. Geoghegan were trying to live by. Throughout their travels, the couple wrote a blog together and shared Instagram posts about the openheartedness they wanted to embody and the acts of kindness reciprocated by strangers.
After earning a master’s degree from Georgetown University, he [Austin] began working at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Convinced that many of the belongings people accrue are unnecessary, he began adopting a minimalist lifestyle, said his childhood friend Ashley Ozery.
With his own hands, he built a house, nicknamed ‘The Matchbox,’ that was so small — just 140 square feet — that it was profiled on numerous TV shows. To free up space, the walls were constructed with built-in magnets, so that he could store metal objects by sticking them to the paneling, like his spice collection.
Allen began to spend more and more time on adventures, wind in his hair, no connections.
In 2012, he met Lauren Anne Geoghegan, a native of Southern California, who like him had graduated from Georgetown and was now working in the college’s admissions office. [skip]
Although Ms. Geoghegan, too, was a seasoned traveler — she had spent a summer in Beirut learning Arabic and a semester in Madrid becoming fluent in Spanish — the rugged, do-it-yourself journeys that had become Mr. Austin’s hallmark were new to her.
She became a vegan, like him, and bought a bicycle.
It was in 2016 that Ms. Geoghegan told Ms. Kerrigan [her friend] that she was planning to quit her job and bike around the world. Ms. Kerrigan could not suppress a little concern. “I said, ‘This is not the Lauren I know,’ ” she said, adding: ‘Jay changed the trajectory of Lauren’s life.
I can think of no more ironic statement. They meticulously planned and saved.
I quit my job today,’ Mr. Austin posted the month before their departure last summer. I’ve grown tired of spending the best hours of my day in front of a glowing rectangle, of coloring the best years of my life in swaths of grey and beige,’ he wrote. ‘I’ve missed too many sunsets while my back was turned. Too many thunderstorms went unwatched, too many gentle breezes unnoticed.
Mr. Austin sounds very 60s-ish. Give peace a chance, the brotherhood of man and all the “I’d like to give the world a Coke” rest. Not everyone was so blindly grounded in theory:
The day Ms. Geoghegan and Ms. Kerrigan said goodbye, the two friends hugged outside Ms. Geoghegan’s apartment.
‘The minute your instinct tells you something is wrong — leave,’ Ms. Kerrigan told her. She was concerned for her friend, in part because of how bighearted she was and in part because she feared that Mr. Austin had a higher tolerance for danger than Ms. Geoghegan did.
Apparently, Austin recognized, to some limited degree, the danger, but so caught up in theory was he, he couldn’t act on it.
In a post about why he chose to cycle — as opposed to, say, drive around the world — Mr. Austin spoke about the vulnerability of being on a bike. “With that vulnerability comes immense generosity: good folks who will recognize your helplessness and recognize that you need assistance in one form or another and offer it in spades,’ he wrote.
Knowing what we know, gentle readers, this is immensely sad, and ironic:
Still, by the time they reached that bend in the road in Tajikistan just over a week ago, they had embraced the notion that the world was overwhelmingly good, the dozens of annotated photographs and the thousands of words they left behind show.
‘You read the papers and you’re led to believe that the world is a big, scary place,’ Mr. Austin wrote. ‘People, the narrative goes, are not to be trusted. People are bad. People are evil.
I don’t buy it. Evil is a make-believe concept we’ve invented to deal with the complexities of fellow humans holding values and beliefs and perspectives different than our own … By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind.
No greater revelation has come from our journey than this,’ he wrote.
Austin’s blog also provides a window on his (and presumably her) hippie-dippy worldview and ultra-PC politics. Elephants, writes Austin, ‘may very well be a smarter, wiser, more thoughtful being than homo sapiens sapiens.’ When white South Africans tell them “that the nation and its redistributionist government are making poor, ignorant choices,” Austin sneers at their ‘Eurocentric values’ and their failure to realize that ‘[n]otions like private property’ are culturally relative. This is apparently a comment on the South African government’s current expropriation of white farmers’ land without compensation. (To be sure, when a friendly Afrikaans man advises Austin and Geoghegan to move their tent because they’ve pitched it too close to a black settlement and may antagonize the locals, they’re quick to let him lead them to a safer spot.)
Austin also sneers at Thanksgiving, ‘a strange tradition built upon a glossy, guiltless retelling of a genocide, in which we show our appreciation for what we have by killing a quarter-billion turkeys, eating to the point of discomfort, queueing up outside shopping malls to buy electronics at reduced rates, and otherwise yearning for that which we do not have.’ When President Trump announces his plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Austin and Geoghegan are in Morocco, where the people are outraged. Yes, because they hate Jews. But Austin’s response is to be so ashamed of his American identity that he tries ‘to disappear into the soft plush’ of a couch cushion.
You knew President Trump had tone somehow responsible for this, didn’t you, gentle readers? And Austin may have been right about elephants. They, as Austin apparently did not, recognize that people are the most dangerous animals.
The Times article about Austin and Geoghegan drew hundreds of reader comments. A surprising number were by other people who’d bicycled or backpacked in far-off, dangerous places. Most saw Austin and Geoghegan as ‘heroic,’ ‘authentic,’ ‘idealistic,’ ‘inspiring’ ‘a Beautiful example of Purity and Light.’ Sample reactions: ‘Their candle burned brightly before it was extinguished.’ And: ‘Good for them! They followed their dream.’ Then there’s this: ‘I only see the beauty of two people taking steps to live the life they envision….The good experienced in their journey far far outweighs any negative.’ Easy to say when you’re not the one in the body bag. ‘What is more dangerous,’ asked yet another reader, ‘exposing yourself to the world and its dangers, and living a full vivid life, or insulating yourself in a safe box, in front of screens, where the world and its marvels and dangers cannot touch you? Jay and Lauren understood that safety is its own danger. They are awesome people.’ No, they’re mangled, decaying corpses. ‘Safe boxes’? That’s what they’re both in now: boxes.
Even in the NYT, there was apparently a mote of rationality:
Perusing all the reader comments, I found exactly two that mentioned Islam critically. Here’s one: ‘Tajikistan is 96.7% Islamic. It is a dangerous place for American tourists….This is not Islamophobia. It is common sense.’ Here’s the other: ‘As a Western woman I have no desire to visit a majority Muslim country because of the religious and cultural bias regarding their treatment of women.’ Both of these comments attracted outraged replies. (‘Many parts of the US are not so kind to women either, particularly those states that have managed to close just about all their Planned Parenthood clinics.’) Several readers railed against ‘religion’ generally, as if terrorism by Quakers and Episcopalians were a worldwide problem.
Austin, and to a probably lesser degree Geoghegan, were progressive globalists. I pray for their souls and mourn their passing, but there are lessons to be learned in their fatal mistakes. The kind of theory-based obliviousness that ultimately put them in places they were almost certain to be killed is a conceit of western democracies, places where there are few to no physical consequences to believing such dangerous nonsense, and great emotional and social rewards.
In America, Austin and Geoghegan were free to hold any belief they liked, dress as they liked, travel as they liked, and profess any political philosophy. A bike trip across the nation would have enabled them to experience a great deal of human kindness, and most likely, they would have completed their trip unharmed. But that would not have proved their theory: “evil is a make-believe concept” less enlightened beings use to demonize those that refuse to hold Austin’s enlightened beliefs. On at least some level, they recognized America was reasonably safe. Only by going into the lion’s den festooned with raw meat could their theories be proved.
And so they set off to travel though the third world, in places no sane man–or woman–dares set foot or wheel. They sought to prove their theories, and reality caught up with them.
Evil exists. To deny it is to expose oneself to constant danger. To travel willingly into the valley of the shadow of death without reliance on the Lord–to such people, there is no higher power than progressivism–or at least effective firearms, is to predetermine one’s fate. Human beings are fallen. That most behave civilly is a testament to man’s ingenuity in creating societies reliant on compliance with the rule of law, not a reflection of the fundamental nature of man. Venture outside those societies, and evil, not goodness holds sway. What’s amazing is they lasted as long as they did on their around the world “all you need is love” excursion.
Understanding evil as I do, I do not go anywhere I cannot go armed, if I can help it, and I do everything I can to be sure I need not go to such places. Traveling by bicycle in remote areas in America is inherently dangerous for a wide variety of reasons. I do not take training rides in my small Texas town unarmed. I would probably be safe if I did not go armed, but evil is no respecter of good intentions and a life kindly lived. Traveling in third world, Muslim countries, unarmed, without resources, armed only with the firm conviction no one will hurt you because you love them, you really love them, you recognize their inherent goodness and humanity, and you share their hatred of Israel, is an almost certain way to be killed, and certainly not humanely.
The world is not a universally good place filled with altruistic people that share the delusions of the self-imagined elite of America. These are expensive delusions that can be afforded only in a few countries in this dangerous world. The millions that want to come to America, where reality produces a relatively safe and very prosperous society, recognize this. Even the incredibly wise progressive Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, informing them America never was great, and never will be unless it becomes fully progressive, does not deter them, because they don’t have the progressive leisure to ignore reality.
When theory is confronted by reality, theory loses almost every time. Austin and Geoghegan know that–now.