I want to take a quick break from the usual travel stories to say a few words about fear-mongering and travel. I am writing this post because I have been approached by media in the last few days to contribute a note about the horrible terrorist attack in Brussels. These requests for comment all ask a version of the same question: “should people should stop traveling to Europe or elsewhere as a result of terrorist attacks?”
The attacks in Brussels, Ankara, Istanbul, Paris, and other places in the last year were horrific. Each of these attacks and the many more that barely make the North American media are tragedies. My heart goes out to those who are affected by the blast and their families.
But I do not think that we ought to stop traveling because of them.
Fear-Mongering and Travel
The news is scary, definitely, because we all fear the unknown. Fear and control are at the core of how the media portrays these foreign destinations. In a 2012 piece from Poynter, Danah Boyd notes:
The local news mantra “If it bleeds, it leads” went to another level such that people heard about horrible things happening outside of their local world. The shift to the Internet has only increased this trend, as news media outlets report on man-eating snakes and meth-addicted parents letting their kids starve to death. Are these stories enticing? Definitely. But are they typical? Definitely not. Yet, when people hear stories of people, they imagine these people to be close to them.
If anything, the fear-mongering has only gotten worse since Boyd wrote her piece, especially in this circus of an election year in the United States. Fear makes for good headlines, and it sways reasonable people to make emotional decisions.
These attacks also go to the heart of what we can’t control, be it at home or abroad. In his book on compulsive worrying, Eliot Cohen notes,
Facing the inherent and unavoidable uncertainty of the future can indeed seem formidable if you demand certainty. But letting go of this demand is the key to letting go of your fear.
While it might feel that few places are guaranteed to be safe, life truly has no guarantees. Demanding certainty — and sound-bites — only serves to hamper our ability to lead fulfilling and rewarding lives.
Few people would have avoided Brussels or Paris before the most recent attacks because they feared those cities were dangerous. Few people would have thought the Boston Marathon would have been a place for terrorism. The reality is that life is full of risks, but staying home to avoid them is not the answer.
Staying home simply limits your mindset and is not a guarantee of safety. Statistically, you are at risk driving your car, or your motorbike, or racing downhill skiing more than visiting Paris or Brussels. But we feel like we are in control when we do those activities, versus the travel, and so we keep doing them.
I am not saying to avoid anything risky at all. My point is simply that risks of attacks, or earthquakes, or avalanches and more — all are inherent in today’s world. You can only sacrifice so much of your life before you maintain a position of fear, and fear is what forces you to lose perspective in the world.
As a woman traveling alone, I feel safer in many countries than I have traveling in the United States. But looking at the news, you’d assume otherwise. Fear warps the ability to see risks for what they really are. When I see these attacks I worry that they will sway more and more North Americans to choose fear over truly trying to ascertain the practical risks that are out there.
The sad reality of the world – and not only today’s world – is that there are always threats. We may feel that there are more threats now, but that is partly because of the nature of news media and immediacy and access to information. Attacks are highly visible in today’s digital news cycle, but they were not unheard of prior.
The mundane, quotidian things we do to ourselves are still great risks. Eating terrible food for most of our lives affects our health. Getting in a car after having one too many drinks is far more irresponsible and risky than traveling to Brussels: every day, almost 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver.
Yes, it is important to weigh what is actually happening on the ground.
There are places I would currently avoid, where it would be irresponsible for me to travel in light of the geopolitical situation. Places like Syria, or Yemen, or Afghanistan. I wish I could visit them as they have a fascinating architecture and gorgeous landscape and delicious food, but right now I cannot.
But I would urge travelers to really think about the risks when they decide to cancel travel plans wholesale. I wish I could say ‘x country is fine! It’s safe!’ But I cannot, not for my own country of Canada, not for the USA, not for anywhere.
Life involves taking risks and sometimes we end up choosing poorly. Walking out of the front door itself brings a kind of risk. But to lock yourself at home is not the answer, especially when factoring in what travel can bring you. Travel is enriching, rewarding, and can make you a better and more compassionate person. It can also provide you with a perspective that makes you a better human. Bearing in mind that some countries with frequent, systematic attacks should be avoided, I would urge people not to avoid all travel out of fear. Doing so plays into what those who attack innocent people want: an angry, reactive modern world.
Helen Keller is widely quoted as saying that security is mostly a superstition, one that doesn’t actually exist in nature. Our obsessive drive to avoid perceived danger is no safer than facing calculated risks head on. If we base decisions like travel purely on fear, we live reactively.
Fear isn’t the answer.
As someone who works in the travel industry, it saddens me to see the media paint entire countries with a wide brush borne of anger and alarm.
My thoughts and love to those affected by each of these events.
Comments on this piece are closed, but there is a discussion on my Facebook page for Legal Nomads here.