I MOVED TO LONDON AT THE END of the summer of 2011. This was a couple of months after the city had exploded in riots following the police shooting of a man in Tottenham. My aunt called me a few days before I left.
“You’re still planning on going?”
“Uh… yeah.” I said, “I’m not going to skip grad school because of riots.”
“Hm. Well, be safe, I guess.”
I hung up confused. Ten years earlier our own hometown had exploded in race riots. I (and I’m sure my aunt) never actually saw or was affected by these riots in any real way. Most riots are pretty easy to avoid.
And why on earth would I let some looting hooligans keep me from living in my favorite city on the planet?
Paris and Istanbul
I’ve heard disturbingly similar sentiments following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Istanbul. I imagine others canceled plans to Orlando after the shooting in June. “It happened once!” people think, “So it may be about to happen again soon!”
This isn’t totally faulty logic. Istanbul has had three terrorist attacks this year, thanks to Turkey’s ongoing conflict with a Kurdish separatist group and with the Islamic State. But Istanbul receives millions of visitors every year — the Grand Bazaar alone is the most visited tourist attraction in the world, with over 91 million visitors per year — and your odds are still extraordinarily low of getting caught up in a terrorist attack. The US State Department advises against traveling to Southeast Turkey (especially near the Syrian border) but otherwise just says to exercise caution when traveling in the country.
For my part, I will never cancel a trip because of the threat of terrorism, unless the threat is truly overwhelming. There are practical reasons for this — canceling a trip is a really great way to waste money, and fewer tourists in tourist-heavy cities is always a cool experience — but I have moral reasons as well.
We blow threats out of proportion.
I was at my buddy’s bachelor party in Charleston, South Carolina, a few months ago. We were at a paintball range when the manager of the place said, “Ever since that Paris shooting, I’ve been carrying a gun on me at all times.”
She’d just admitted to having a gun, so I refrained from asking the first question that popped into my mind, which was, “Why on earth would ISIS attack a Charleston paintball range?” and I also held back on the second question, which was, “Really? It was Paris that did it and not the Charleston church shooting last June?”
As of last December (prior to Orlando) only 29 Americans had died in jihadist attacks on American soil in the previous ten years, while 132,349 Americans had been killed in gun homicides. The woman at the paintball range had protected herself from a very small threat by carrying around a much, much larger threat.
And this isn’t to single out gun violence — air pollution kills 5 million people a year. 725,000 people a year are killed by mosquito-borne illnesses. 1.3 million die in car crashes worldwide. Simply put: we’re not very good at determining risk when we travel. Terrorism is terrifying (oh hey, look, it’s there in the name!), but it’s ultimately not a huge threat. Air pollution is atrocious in China — but I’m not going to cancel my trip because of it, regardless of the risk it poses to my asthmatic lungs. So why would I cancel a trip because of terrorism?
I refuse to help terrorists at their game.
Back during the Revolutionary War, Mel Gibson and other revolutionaries resorted to guerilla tactics as a way to defeat a superior army. The British viewed this type of fighting as cowardly, but the Americans very sensibly figured that, if they couldn’t win by following the rules of conventional warfare, then they didn’t have much of an incentive to follow those rules now, did they?
The Vietnamese adopted a similar tactic against the superior military of the United States nearly 200 years later. And it’s an extension of this same idea — if the rules guarantee you lose, break the rules — that has led to the growth of terrorism. Al-Qaeda, the IRA, ISIS, Al-Shabaab, and other terrorist groups all know that they can’t win their fight face-to-face with their enemy. They can’t even pose a legitimate existential threat to their enemy. In no conceivable world would ISIS overthrow the United States Government.
So instead, they attack morale. They attempt to strike terror into the hearts of their enemies by creating a sense of insecurity. If you’re not safe at the airport, or in the market, or in the public square, where are you safe? Can you ever really be safe?
These are the questions terrorists want you to ask yourself. They know that they don’t have a great chance of actually killing you, but they can make you behave as if they are a true threat. They can make you stay at home. They can attack a public place in Istanbul or Paris and hurt the country economically by scaring away tourists. They create the illusion of insecurity and draw your country towards their home turf, where they’ve got more of an advantage.
For sure: There are times that travel isn’t safe. You should probably not travel to Syria at the moment, for example. But there’s a difference between being stupid and being scared. There’s a difference between putting yourself at risk and behaving the way a terrorist wants you to behave.
You can choose not to play along. You can choose to be unafraid. You can attend the Orlando Pride Parade, or attend a show at the Bataclan, or run in the Boston Marathon, or go to church in Charleston, or take in the Hagia Sofia. You can choose not to be the puppet of a terrorist or a fearmongering politician by simply continuing to travel. Living fearlessly is the best way to fight terrorists, despots, fundamentalists, xenophobes, and anyone else who gets their power from their ability to scare you into submission.