I'm supposed to be dead, buckled as I am in the Terrorism Belt of the Mediterranean. Warnings about the Hellenic hell that is now said to be Athens had me thinking for a loose moment that I would be returning to the States in a body bag. Friends gave me the glummest of farewells. Take out extra insurance, said one, you owe it to your family. Others saw my trip as confirmation of the craziness they always believed possessed me.
After six days in Greece, I'm alive. So are other Americans here. And Greeks. I have survived danger, let's not minimize it. I was on the fourth hole of the Glyfada golf course when a wild drive from the opposite fairway sliced over my head. Terror? It was present whenever I crossed an Athens street and the cars and mopeds surged at me in tidal frenzy.
With tee shots and traffic the only terror I saw in Greece -- driving lessons could eliminate both -- I was relieved to have a week's rest from America's terrorism hysteria. The fear began last summer, when, following the TWA hijacking, the Athens airport was singled out by Ronald Reagan in a press conference as being unsafe and to be avoided. Shortly after, as is the custom, the facts were brought to the public's attention by administration officials who believe accuracy is part of their mission. The Department of Transportation said the airport had a record of safety. That same message was given last week when a DOT official told a congressional committee that the Athens airport has "effective security programs." Since 1977, only three of the world's 256 hijackings were known to have originated in Greece. Fourteen were on planes flying out of Miami, 10 from New York.
Before leaving for Athens and hearing the you're-nuts-to-go-to-Greece advice, I began concluding that my warners believed I was going to New York City -- and that's why they feared for my life. In the past two years, New York has averaged 117 murders a month -- about twice the number in all of Greece for one year. Or perhaps they thought I was risking my life by going to Dallas, Detroit or Philadelphia, where the homicide rate went up last year. Throughout the United States, violent crime rose 5 percent in 1985.
Athenians, who know American-style hubris when they see it, ought to be the ones issuing travel advisories: why would anyone from peaceful Greece want to vacation in violent America? Tourism officials in Athens, with gifts for discernment befitting the descendants of Aristotle and Plato, have been saying that if Americans want to get hysterical about threats to their lives, they should begin in their own dining rooms and neighborhoods.
In 1985, 10 Americans were killed by terrorists in Europe -- out of 6.6 million who visited. In the last year to be recorded, there was one death by choking on food per 68,497 Americans, a 960 percent greater risk than death by terrorists last year. An 870 percent greater risk of being killed in bicycle crashes is present than of death by terrorists. For auto accidents, the risk is 15,210 times greater. The dogs of pet-loving Americans killed nearly twice as many U.S. citizens last year as terrorists in Europe.
Washington may be the largest glass house on the planet from which to throw stones at Greece. In the past decade, it has been the City of Bombs. A car bomb killed a Chilean diplomat and a New Jersey woman as they drove to work. A bomb exploded in the U.S. Capitol. A bomb blew up in front of the National War College Building at Ft. McNair. Then there were the bomb scares, beginning with a try -- false as it turned out -- to level the Washington Monument. Since January, Washington has had 246 bomb threats.
After bombs, guns. A madman shot a president outside a hotel on a sidewalk. Another walked into the security-tight State Department and shot his mother at her desk and then himself. The killings occurred down the hall from the secretary of state.
Despite this record of violence, terrorist panic is frightening Americans away from such places as Greece. Last week, an American network television crew fearlessly took to the streets of downtown Athens to find some U.S. tourists. The crew -- brave investigative reporters all -- found some middle-aged Chicagoans indulging their wanderlust in a caf,e. It was hot tea for the tourists and hot news for the crew.
The reality of terrorism needs to be separated from the fear of terrorism, the same as we separate ourselves from the fear of death by choking or highway crashes. We go on eating and driving, being cautious but not hysterically so.
My thoughts on leaving Athens are on a possible return this summer for vacation. Why not? It's safer here than bicycling on Cape Cod, less perilous than jogging past the dog owners on the California beaches and less dangerous than the New Jersey turnpike.