The delicate verbal embroidery does not disguise the message of the Eastern Airlines television commercial that says, "This summer, like no other summer, there's no face like home." The commercial overflows with Florida faces -- Disney faces, alligator faces -- and implies, with labored semi-subtlety: this summer is "like no other" because of terrorism, so stay in America.
Perhaps Eastern cannot be blamed for trying to turn a profit from the public's panic. However, the public is blameworthy for panicking.
Last Sunday, Eastern's commercial helped pay for newscasts that included stories about Navy pilots returning home from carrier duty off Libya and about the security alert at English Channel ports in response to reports of a plot to bomb a ferry. The aim of such a plot would be to kill tourists, especially Americans, in a British setting.
Such an attack targeting tourists would show that terrorists know they are sowing panic. Americans are handing terrorists a huge victory by allowing themselves to be frightened away from European travel.
The American public has emerged blinking into the sunlight from the latest Rambo movie and is ambling down the street to see "Top Gun," a movie celebrating Navy aviators. The public is rightly proud of the president who ordered and the aviators who executed the strike at Libya. Yet a portion of this puffed-up-with-pride public is making the American nation seem contemptible.
In the process, it is giving the British public, which has a strong appeasement reflex anyway, an economic incentive to deepen its resentment of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's cooperation with the U.S. raid. The sharp reduction of foreign travel by Americans is hurting many British businesses. And the reduction is irrational.
Irrational risk-perception is a fascinating facet of modern life. The Chernobyl nuclear accident brought out antinuclear forces that are nimble at the art of piggybacking their cause on a passing hysteria. Never mind that it is safer to live near a nuclear-power plant than a coal-burning plant. Newspapers pleased to fill pages with cigarette ads (smoking-related deaths per year: 350,000) editorialize about the "unacceptable risks" of nuclear power, a technology that has an astonishing U.S. safety record: zero deaths.
There are white-knuckle passengers who writhe in agony during the flight to Los Angeles, where they heave a sigh of relief as they sag into a poorly maintained cab that is driven by a stranger who speeds off into the roaring river of metal called the San Diego Freeway, on which, on a given evening, about 20 percent of the drivers have alcohol in their systems and upward of 10 percent are seriously impaired by it.
People who irrationally fear the friendly skies more than the freeways do no public harm. But the cowed American who allows terrorists to shape his or her travel plans hurts the nation -- its reputation and its staunchest allies.
The New Republic, in an editorial titled "Please Go Away," notes that American avoidance of Europe might be defensible were it motivated by a desire to protest European appeasement of terrorist nations. But "Europhobia" expresses fear, not principle. And the two nations suffering most are those with the best anti-terrorist records, Britain and Israel. Worse, tourist bookings to the Soviet Union are up 50 percent because that police state is safe: terrorism there is an export commodity.
The New Republic notes that in 1985, 23 Americans were killed by terrorists, the same number as in 1972 and less than in 1974 (42). In the first four months of 1986, five Americans were killed by terrorism in Europe, fewer than the number of vacationers who will die in America in the next three months from allergic reactions to bee stings. (Five terrorist victims in four months is a rate of 15 a year. Last year 15 Americans were killed in elevator accidents.)
In the first four months of 1986, 464 Americans were murdered in New York City. So, you are going to drive (43,500 dead on highways last year) away from urban mayhem . . . to the lake? In 1983, 6,600 Americans drowned. Last year more Americans died in bathtubs than at the hands of terrorists.
As a scholar has noted, we can predict statistical effects of a risk on the population at large, but not on individuals, which is why fortune tellers never become as rich as insurance companies. But we can gauge the risk to this nation that results from panic that tells terrorists that terrorism is working. Americans who stay home from Europe to hide from terrorism are not just asking for trouble for their nation, they are pleading for it. The world has a way of heeding such pleading.