If you’re a traveler, you have probably gotten used to hearing friends and family say, “Aren’t you worried about terrorism?” Terrorism is the boogeyman of the modern travel world — we’re constantly hearing stories about maniacs driving trucks through crowds of people, or murderous thugs shooting up concerts, or twisted ideologues tossing bombs into churches.
It can all get a bit scary, and it’s tough, upon hearing the question enough times, to not start worrying about terrorism yourself. It may be helpful, in this case, to know a few things about terrorism and travel.
1. Terrorism is a tactic, not an ideology.
Many of us in the west make the mistake of conflating terrorism with fundamentalist Islam. This isn’t really the case — one is a religion, the other is a tactic arising from asymmetrical warfare. Asymmetrical warfare is a situation where one side has far greater firepower than the other.
For example: Say you’re playing a game of checkers, and you want to win. It behooves you to play by the rules — you can try and outmaneuver and outplay your opponent, and hope that they are worse than you at checkers strategy, but if you cheat, your opponent is likely to cry foul. Now imagine that, to start the game, your opponent gets all 12 of his pieces, and you just get one. At this point, if you want to win, you’re going to have to make some decisions. If you play by the rules, you’re probably going to have to cheat. So every time your opponent looks away from the board, you reach over and steal one of his pieces. As he loses more and more of his pieces, he gets flustered and starts making mistakes, and eventually, you jump his last piece and you win. You broke the rules, but now you have a chance of winning.
This may sound like an ignoble way to win, but it is basically what is happening with terrorism in modern war. The armies of the United States and Europe are huge and immensely powerful. Terrorist groups are small and weak. If they were to meet the US army on a conventional battlefield — if they were to play by the rules — it would mean their immediate annihilation.
So they cheat. They send single guys to blow themselves up in defenseless, non-military crowds. It sows fear in their opponent, and the opponent, hopefully, thinks less rationally, gets paranoid, and makes mistakes: they bomb a village that’s full of civilians, they start torturing the people they capture, they start monitoring their own citizens and leading witch hunts, etc.
This naturally infuriates a lot of people, and some of those furious people will then be recruited by the terrorists, meaning they can launch more attacks, meaning the opponent makes more mistakes, and so on. This tactic can be adopted by anyone with very little power who is fighting an opponent with a lot of power, and it has — the IRA used terrorism to fight the British, anarchists used to toss bombs into crowded Parisian cafes, and the French resistance (and the rest of the Allies) employed terrorism against the Nazis.
2. Terrorists are exploiting your psychology to make you scared.
The reason terrorism exists is because small groups decided that the game was stacked against them, and so rather than lose, they decided to change the game. The thing about a game change is that we can choose not to play along. Terrorism gets its name honestly — it only works if the people it targets feel terrorized and start changing their behavior.
It plays off of a psychological quirk. Say you’re going to the beach — what are you more scared of? Shark attacks or drowning? The rational answer would be drowning: in the US, one person dies every two years from a shark attack, but ten a day die from drowning.
A lot of people, though, are more scared of sharks. Shark attacks are more sudden, more violent, and more horrifying — something with black, dead eyes and rows of sharp teeth comes up from out of the briny depths and rips you in half. That’s a lot more dramatic than getting caught in a riptide and slipping quietly beneath the waves. It’s also a situation you have less control over — you don’t have much of a say in who the shark chooses to eat, but you can have a decent amount of confidence in your abilities as a swimmer.
Terrorism effectively does the same thing. You’re far more likely to die of a heart attack or get killed by a family member in a domestic dispute. But all of these feel as if they’re in your control, whereas a man in a hood walking into your mall and blowing you up seems totally unpredictable and terrifying. And that, the unknown, is what scares us.
3. Terrorism’s greatest ally is a sensationalist media.
Part of the reason that terrorism has become so effective in the last few decades is because the media has a kind of gross, symbiotic relationship with it. Terrorism wouldn’t terrorize people if they didn’t know much about it. If, for example, drownings were reported in the way terrorism was, we’d be spending a lot more time on improving our counter-undertow tactics than we would our counter-terrorism tactics.
But the media often (intentionally or otherwise) sensationalizes terrorism for precisely the same reason that terrorists commit acts of terrorism: because it grabs our attention. In a market where ratings, clicks, and subscriptions are what drive media revenues, it becomes almost too tempting to spend more time on violent spectacle than on actual, legitimate threats.
Charlie Brooker, the creator of Black Mirror did an excellent bit on the media coverage of mass shootings on his show Newswipe, and how the media actually serves to exacerbate the problem rather than help it. Give the full video a watch:
The most important point is this final quote from forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, who has studied mass shootings for decades:
“If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24-7 coverage. Do everything you can not to make the body count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. Do localize this story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week.”
This same effect is true of terrorism — most of the terrorist attacks that are covered are fairly small, but the media coverage is always sensational. In this media environment, terrorists can launch attacks relatively locally, killing one or two people at a time (or otherwise failing entirely to kill anyone), and it can still feel, to the public, as if we’re under constant attack, thanks to the coverage.
4. All of this makes terrorism beatable.
With all of this in mind, it becomes clear: terrorism is beatable. If your opponent changes the game and uses a new tactic against you, then there’s nothing stopping you from changing the game yourself. Terrorists thrive on a sense of insecurity, and they play off of paranoia. Thus, the answer is to simply train yourself not to feel insecure or paranoid. Don’t let terrorism change your behavior.
When it comes to travel, it’s important to recognize that terrorists who plan attacks in major cities like to go for places that are iconic — Times Square in New York, Big Ben in London — with the idea that the media coverage of their attack will inevitably have establishing shots of these landmarks that people automatically associate with the city. This will likely make tourism to these cities suffer, as people will be scared of visiting a place that’s clearly under siege.
It is possible to travel abroad to places that have been attacked by terrorists and to not be terrorized. Your odds of being attacked are low, and the cities are far less dangerous than the media would have you think. There are some places where you are less safe (Forbes did an excellent breakdown of the least safe places for Americans) but they are the places you would expect, and the odds are still minuscule.
It’s become a cliche to say, “That’s what the terrorists want,” but look: if you’re terrorized by terrorism, that’s what the terrorists want. The data shows that we’re living in the safest time in human history, and also the time where it’s literally the easiest it’s ever been to explore the world.
All of life is a risk, and you can take a certain amount of precautions to stay safe, but at some point, you have to balance those precautions with the risk that, if you’re always scared, you may never really live your life.