Yesterday, we reported on the U.S. State Department’s worldwide travel alert. How big of deal are these things? Well, they aren’t massive — in 2013, during a similar warning period, President Obama went on Jay Leno and played it pretty cool:
I think the general rule is just show some common sense and some caution. So there are some countries where you’re less likely to experience a terrorist attack. There are some where there are more dangers. And if people are paying attention, checking with the State Department or embassy, going on the website before you travel, find out what kind of precautions you should be taking, then I think it still makes sense for people to take vacations. They just have to make sure that they’re doing so in a prudent way.
Which feels like a perfect take on the matter. Except that fear is a funny thing. It picks at you when you least expect it. It gnaws on your psyche — nibbling at first, then gulping down huge chucks of your capacity for rational thought.
I have kids.
I have a partner.
Why risk it?
It’s not necessarily the possibility of death that’s so scary, either. Death can come from anywhere and it comes from a lot of places far more often than it comes from terrorism. No, it’s the suddenness, the lack of control, and the raw brutality of the violence that creates this fear in us.
We are socialized to drive cars and we secretly believe that we’re better drivers than everyone else — so we drive our cars without being scared. But even after September 11 and the numerous attacks since, the threat of terrorism (at home or abroad; perpetrated by the Islamic State or a lone radical) is something we don’t feel acclimated to.
Getting killed at the hands of a terrorist is like getting killed by one of those parasites that lie dormant in your brain for 30 years and then decimate it all at once. It’s horrifying and we have no real way to anticipate or mitigate the devastation.
So if we can somehow decrease our risks by staying home, then…maybe we should?
* * *
I’m not telling you not to travel, in fact, my thoughts are about to swing wide in the other direction, but you’d have to be a fool to ignore both sides of the matter. It’s absurd to think that it’s as easy as, “just go travel.”
Still…taking the measured approach, looking at the issue from every angle, and without over simplifying it — you should go travel.
Let me qualify that with this: I have been a professional travel writer for about 13 years. I have visited a lot of places and felt the presence of threats both vague and immediate. I have been mugged in Ecuador, which I never really expected; and I’ve never felt safer than my two weeks in the West Bank. I’ve spent months driving around impoverished parts of sub-Saharan Africa without a single problem, and I lost thousands of dollars in electronics to thieves at a remote California state park.
The world is a safe place up until the very second that it’s not.
Right now, my mom, sister, editor, and two of our Uproxx writers are all in Europe. I didn’t contact them to make sure they knew about the warning and they didn’t ask for my opinion as a travel writer. What’s there to talk about? There’s nothing to tell, nothing to do. The alert is vague and nebulous and impossible to define and no amount of expertise matters. It’s just a thing that we have to deal with. So we deal with it.
As travel expert Peter Greenberg wrote yesterday on his blog:
Would I go to Egypt now? Absolutely. To Paris? It’s a great place to celebrate Thanksgiving. That’s not being irresponsible—it’s embracing common sense, history, and situational awareness.
In the end, we have to teach ourselves to take the possibility of terrorist violence for granted. That’s what you have to do to live any sort of life — take risks for granted. That’s my encouragement to you, the potential traveler: take the measure of these risks, be aware that they are real, and then (mostly) ignore them. Like the possibilities of bad weather or a car wreck. Do your best, grab umbrellas, wear seat belts, keep an eye out, but beyond that…what can you do?
Life is risk.
* * *
I was in New York City on September 11. I was 22 years old and I had to tell a bunch of 18-year-olds at the high school where I taught that their aunts, cousins, and friends were dead. After the attacks people started throwing around the phrase “if we ____________ then the terrorists have already won.” It became a refrain, then a cliché, then a punchline in a matter of weeks. But more than a decade later, I think it rings true.
The biggest reason I think we should keep traveling is that terrorists don’t deserve to hold sway over how we move about the world. Not yet, at least. Sadly, there might come a time for that, but I don’t think we’ve reached it. Right now, I think we should admit the fact that the next attack could be at the Oklahoma State Fair, or the Amsterdam public library, or in Downtown Disney.
It’s a risk that we have to fly in the face of in order to fully live, in order to not let fear own us.
I’m reminded of a scene from Good Will Hunting:
That says it all. We either let our attackers dictate the terms, or we look them in the face, sneer, and say, “You have nothing on me. I might fear you, but not enough to let you control me.”
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If my impassioned argument doesn’t convince you to travel, here’s a convenient bit of practical motivation: the euro is currently at a seven-month low against the dollar. And the dollar isn’t just strong in Europe, it’s crushing it in Australia too. So that’s a plus.
Also, if you are in your 20s — a decade in which I will forever argue that collecting experiences ought to be your chief ambition — then you might note that besides being a financially favorable time to travel, this is also a very interesting time to travel. I did the majority of my vagabonding the year of Hurricane Katrina and I understand what the world was like (in general) during that year. I understood how people (in general) thought of us as Americans. If you go traveling now, you’ll have a unique insight into how open or closed off people are — how welcoming or unwelcoming — during this latest era of terror panic.
At the end of the day, to travel or not to travel is a simple risk vs. reward decision that you have to make for yourself. You can stay home, for fear of something terrible happening; or you can travel, with fear of something terrible happing.
I think you should listen to those pings of fear. I think you should hear them out. Then I think you should travel anyway. Travel, after all, is best at making us feel fully alive and — sad as it is — you can’t be fully alive in 2015 without recognizing the dangers of terrorism.
So recognize them, see them for what they are, then push them aside and go.