In the past, visitors to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi were greeted with an inscription that read: Know thyself!
Over the years the phrase has collected many meanings. For our purposes I will assume that the god was saying that you should know that you are mortal, not immortal; vulnerable, not invulnerable.
Knowing your limitations and not taking unnecessary risks seems like good practical and spiritual advice.
Consider the murder of Sarai Sierra. As you know the Staten Island housewife flew off to Turkey in order to pursue her interest in photography. When she failed to make her return flight, the Turkish authorities launched an extensive manhunt. After a few days, they found her bruised and beaten body in a seedy part of Istanbul. She had been murdered.
Information about the case is spotty and unclear. Many have asked what she, a married woman, mother of two children, was doing traveling to an exotic foreign country. Some have found it strange that a woman who was going to take photographs had no photographic equipment beyond her iPhone.
And then there are the salacious rumors. When her husband hacked into her email account, he found that she had been communicating with a Turkish man. The man was brought in for questioning and admitted that he had had carnal relations with Sierra the day before she died.
It has also been reported that Sierra also took short side trips to Amsterdam and Berlin. On her trip to Amsterdam she stayed with a man she had only known through online communications. The man denies that anything sexual happened between them.
It seems unlikely, as some have imagined that she was a drug courier, but it does make sense to say that she went abroad in search of sexual thrills.
The Daily Mail report suggests that Sierra had been spending some of her time chatting up Turkish men.
Why Istanbul? Perhaps because it is reputed to be a fairly safe city. Perhaps because it has an exotic side that she found exciting. Perhaps she craved the kind of excitement that accompanies danger.
This hypothesis is supported by some of her husband’s tweets. The Daily Mail calls them "cryptic," but I beg to differ. Sierra’s husband tweeted: “Don’t cheat in relationship. If you are not happy just leave.”
To me this says that she had been unhappy in her marriage, that she had been looking for an extramarital dalliance or two and did not want to break up her marriage and her family over it.
Sierra had been married for fourteen years; she had two boys, 9 and 11. Some people might consider it a good situation. Sierra seems to have considered it stifling and repressive.
But, if she was looking for some extracurricular thrills she apparently did not want to find them in her own neighborhood or in a place where she could be recognized and exposed.
Then, there is the matter of a woman traveling along. Some reports suggested that she had planned to travel with a friend. Later, the friend denied having committed to the trip.
Some people have dared to suggest that it is too dangerous for a woman to be traveling alone to a place like Turkey. Others retort that Turkey is far safer than, say, Chicago. Still others note that Muslim men have often abused Western and Westernized women. Turkey is surely not the worst of the lot, but the country has been becoming more Islamist and this is normally not a good thing for women. .
Writing in the Huffington Post Leyla Giray has taken serious offense to the notion that single women should not travel alone. She informs us that she herself has traveled around the world solo and has never had any problems. In itself, this means nothing.
Giray adds that those who suggest that Sarai Sierra should not have traveled solo are bigoted misogynists or worse.
Responding to those who dared to suggest that Sierra did not use the best judgment, Giray responded:
This type of reaction has been beset by ignorance, prejudice and even xenophobia. Media coverage and comments about Sarai's murder uncover a clear subtext: She had it coming, and none of this would have happened had she stayed home where she belonged.
Some of the comments are downright sexist. If she had been a man, how many commenters would have implied "he should have stayed home with his kids" and "he deserved what he got"?
Unfortunately, Giray cannot do any better than to trot out a tired and empty idea that men and women are the same.
I trust that the priests at Apollo’s temple in Delphi would have accepted that you cannot know yourself if you do not know whether you are a man or a woman and if you don’t know the difference.
If a woman chooses to travel alone, she should take more precautions, because she is more vulnerable. This applies in particular to Western women. No one quite understands how it happened, but in many parts of the world, men have come to believe that all Western women are of dubious moral character, and therefore….
It is also possible that Sierra understood her vulnerability and the possible dangers she might face and found them exciting. Most women would not fly to Amsterdam to spend the night with a man they knew only from an online chat.
Another part of knowing yourself is knowing that you are a parent with responsibility toward two children. Perhaps, Sierra saw her role as an oppressive burden that she needed to overcome. Perhaps she was seeking liberation. Perhaps she wanted to live an alternate life. After all, when she signed in at her hostel in Istanbul she declared that she was unmarried.
Had she known herself to be the mother of two children, perhaps she would have been less reckless. Had she weighed the consequences for her children against her wish for a dangerous thrill, then perhaps she would have done otherwise.
Apparently, Sierra did not want other people to know who she was or what she was doing. One appreciates that if she had been indulging in some sex tourism, she wanted to do it in a a place where no one knew her name. In that way she would have been protecting her husband, her children and her reputation.
So, Sierra went to Turkey to indulge her concupiscent longings because she did not want anyone to know what she was doing.
In a brutal irony, her behavior has now been put on public display and her reputation has been tarnished. Her children have not only lost a mother, but they will be forced to remember her for having done things that she never wanted them to know about.