Everything You Need To Know About Terrorism and Travel
This is a resource page. We will update it as more information becomes available.
THE RECENT UPTICK IN TERRORIST attacks in Europe has a lot of would-be travelers nervous about going abroad. And this is understandable. Terrorism is, well… terrifying. It’s specifically designed to make us feel ill at-ease in the places where we’re usually comfortable. But if we have any intention of going out and exploring the world, then terrorism is just one of the risks we’re going to have to deal with.
We think people should travel, and travel fearlessly. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t educate ourselves and take precautions against possible risks. So with that in mind, we’ve put together a resource page that we will update regularly with information and resources you can use to make sure your trip is as safe as possible.
First of all, what is terrorism?
We should distinguish terrorism from ordinary criminal activity, because there’s stuff that is terrifying, but is not terrorism. So let’s define it.
The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.
The main point of terrorism, unlike everyday violence, is that it sends a message. The act of violence itself is less important than the message, which is designed to influence the target audience in some way shape or form.
Terrorism, historically, has been used as a tactic in asymmetrical warfare. Say you have a very small army, and you’re going up against a very big army. You can’t possibly beat them head-to-head, so you have to choose between dying a martyr, or attempting to win by other means. One means by which you could beat them is by committing sudden, horrifying attacks against their civilian populations. By doing so, you could exaggerate the actual amount of power you have. This could make them actually fear you (they would not fear you on the battlefield), and it could also goad them into retaliating brutally, which could further radicalize people on your side to join your cause.
What’s important to note is that terrorism does not belong to any single group. It is a tactic, not an ideology. It has been used by nationalist movements (like the IRA), by ideological movements (like Colombia’s Marxist guerrilla group, the FARC), by religious movements (like al-Qaeda), by racist movements (like the KKK), and even by lone wolves (like Timothy McVeigh or the Unabomber).
So knowing this, how should we travelers respond to the terrorist threat?
Rule 1: Don’t be terrorized.
Because the message of terrorism matters more than the act of violence itself, the tactic ceases to be effective if we, the general public, reject the message and refuse to be terrorized. That’s easier said than done, but let’s try to break it down a bit.
Terrorism is made easier by mass media. In the past, we would not all have all heard about the truck that shooting in the Istanbul nightclub (which is the most recent attack as of this writing, but almost certainly not the most recent of your reading), but now we do. We hear about terrorism all the time, and this creates a sense of insecurity in our lives. The thing is, this insecurity is mostly imagined.
The threat of terrorism isn’t as big as you think
The reason we’re so scared of terrorism has to do with human psychology. For example: Which is more scary: Heart disease, or a shark attack? Most people would say, “Obviously the shark attack.” And they wouldn’t be wrong — there’s something truly frightening about going out for a casual swim in the ocean, and having a prehistoric monster shoot up from the dark, briny depths to disembowel you while you drown in a churning pool of your own blood. Heart disease, which happens over the course of decades and can be prevented by healthy eating and brisk morning walks, simply doesn’t compare.
But your odds of dying of heart disease are 1 in 6. Your odds of dying in a shark attack are 1 in 300 million.
Terrorism kills more people than sharks, but it still doesn’t kill many: your odds are 1 in 25 million worldwide (in the US, it’s even less likely). When you travel, it’s far more likely (1 in 5,862 in the US) that you’ll die in a plane crash than you will in an act of terrorism
Things are getting safer.
The truth is, according to Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, we live in the most peaceful time in human history. As a species, we’re getting better at taking care of our health, we’re having fewer giant wars than we used to, and we’re becoming less tolerant of violence.
If you need a mantra when you travel, let this be your mantra: “I will not be terrorized.” After all, one of the ways in which terrorism does harm to its target it by damaging its economy — something that could be aided by a drop in tourism revenue. That’s exactly what has happened in Europe, which has seen a huge decline in tourism since the recent terror attacks. By traveling fearlessly, by visiting places that may be widely perceived as “unsafe,” you are undermining the terrorists.
Rule 2: Take some basic precautions.
None of this is to say that there isn’t a risk of terrorism in the places you visit, and that you should just blunder out blindly into the world. While your odds of getting caught up in an attack are miniscule, you can take steps to make them even more miniscule.
The best thing you can do is to check the US State Department’s Travel Warnings website. You can search for the countries you’re visiting, and they will give you a list of what the risks are in traveling there. They do an excellent job of breaking down which places are most likely to be at risk, and where specifically the risks are higher.
Regardless of what country you’re going to, check out the State Department’s destination pages. They break down the basic safety tips for every country, and also give you the downlow on visa requirements, consular locations, local laws, etc. The CIA World Factbook is a pretty cool resource too, just to give you some historical background for the countries you’re visiting.
Know where the risks are.
Once you’ve done your research, you’ll have a better sense of where and when on your trip you’ll be the most vulnerable. Again — don’t be terrorized. With that said, touristy places and spots with big crowds are easy targets, and you can just stay a little more alert when you’re in these places than you would otherwise.
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If you see someTHING, say something
The mantra of anti-terrorism campaigns everywhere is, “If you see something, say something.” It’s really, really important to note that it’s “see someTHING,” not, “see someONE.” This campaign, unfortunately, lends itself to racial profiling. So instead, follow the Department of Homeland Security’s guidelines for what “suspicious behavior” is:
- Unusual items or situations: A vehicle is parked in an odd location, a package/luggage is unattended, a window/door is open that is usually closed, or other out-of-the-ordinary situations occur.
- Eliciting information: A person questions individuals at a level beyond curiosity about a building’s purpose, operations, security procedures and/or personnel, shift changes, etc.
- Observation/surveillance: Someone pays unusual attention to facilities or buildings beyond a casual or professional interest. This includes extended loitering without explanation (particularly in concealed locations); unusual, repeated, and/or prolonged observation of a building (e.g., with binoculars or video camera); taking notes or measurements; counting paces; sketching floor plans, etc.
As a traveler, you won’t be able to avoid airports and train stations, so these are the places in particular where you should be keeping an eye out for this type of behavior. If you see something that fits these descriptions, contact the nearest law enforcement officer. Here are things that do not count as “suspicious behavior”:
It’s also important to recognize that this is a game of risk reduction — you’re never going to be 100% safe. To give an example: when a terrorist tried to smuggle a bomb on board in his shoe, authorities decided to fight back by having passengers take their shoes off at airport security. Terrorists responded by smuggling bombs in their underwear — which airport security couldn’t very well insist all passengers take off.
Recently, terrorist groups like ISIS have been using trucks as terrorist weapons. The authorities can’t really ban trucks, so at some point, we have to choose between living in fear, or just accepting the risk and living our lives.
Matador’s final word is this: whenever you can, travel. You should always practice caution and never put yourself at serious risk, but unless the place you’re going is extremely unsafe (like Syria at the moment), you can usually find a way to plan a reasonably safe trip there. You will never get your odds of being targeted down to absolute zero — such is the way of life.
If you want to be totally prepared, check out the following resources:
- Download the State Department’s Smart Traveler App to get alerts when you’re traveling.
- Register yourself with the State Department before traveling.
- Buy decent travel medical insurance ahead of time.
- The State Department’s tips for avoiding being targeted.
- The State Department’s Travel Warnings and Alerts page.
- The State Department’s Emergency Assistance page.
- The Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” page.
- The CIA World Factbook.
Remember: The world is far more wonderful than it is scary, and you can balance fearlessness with caution. Happy travels!
This article was last updated on December 27, 2016.