“In 2004, Madrid suffered a terrorist bombing in its Metro, which killed 191 and injured 1,800. In 2005, London suffered a similar terrorist bombing in its Tube system, killing 52 and injuring 700. These societies tightened their security, got the bad guys, and carried on. Paris will, too,” Steves wrote. “I’m sure that many Americans will cancel their trips to Paris (a city of 2 million people) or the rest of Europe (a continent of 500 million people), because of an event that killed about 150. As a result, ironically, they’ll be staying home in a country of 320 million people that loses over 30,000 people a year (close to 100 people a day) to gun violence.”
Steves’s experience with European travel after terrorist incidents stretches back even further than Madrid and London; as he told readers who responded to the original post, he began traveling shortly after the 1972 Munich Olympics, at which the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September took 11 Israeli competitors hostage and eventually killed them and a German police officer.
When we spoke shortly before Thanksgiving, I asked Steves what had changed in Americans’ attitudes about traveling after terrorist attacks in the more than 40 years since. He suggested that a cycle of fear was at work, with government, citizens and government all feeding on each other to create a response of greater magnitude to such events.
“If I can remember correctly in the old days, if a plane went down, it was a tragedy, but it wasn’t milked quite like it’s milked today. And that has an impact on people’s perceptions,” Steves told me. “I think it’s a circle. I think the government response is driven by public expectations, which is driven by media coverage. I think the government, if it wants to respond to people’s concerns, there’s no choice but to amp it up more than it might otherwise … I think there are people that are a little more fragile with their outlook that can be almost brutalized or abused by the fear that comes across from the TV. It’s not suddenly that way, but it’s a factor that’s been growing.”
He suggested that Americans need to carefully analyze State Department cautions about travel, like the Worldwide Travel Alert issued on Nov. 23 that explained to readers that “Current information suggests that ISIL (aka Da’esh), al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests.”
“I think we need to understand what the warnings are,” Steves said. “An alert is just a heads-up. ‘It’s going to be raining tomorrow, be sure to bring your gear.’ ‘This country’s going to have an election, there are going to be people in the streets.’… A warning would be more that ‘We’ve got credible information that this group is going to be targeting Americans in Italy next week.’ … A lot of people are going to respond the same to both of them.”
He also cautioned that travelers need to be able to manage their own fears and those of their loved ones, who may be anxious about them traveling after an attack, and learn to assess risk in a realistic way. Fears may not be rooted in rational assessments of the actual danger of traveling abroad, but if travelers can’t set their trepidation aside, they may not be able to enjoy even safe trips.
“I think our returning travelers are more resilient. If we looked at the trips that we have to destinations like Turkey, we would see a rise in the number of return travelers filling those tours, rather than first-timers,” Steves said. “I would give [the Paris attacks] a second thought, but I wouldn’t let it keep me home. I wouldn’t begin to let it keep me home because I know that statistically when security goes up, things get safer afterwards, and I know statistically, there’s more than terrorists that can cause harm. … As a writer, I try to be a little bit of an annoyance and remind people it’s no worse to be killed by a Muslim than to be killed by a Christian, so why are you acting like this?”
And Steves emphasized that traveling can be a way for Americans to grapple with their own anxieties about the outside world.
“If we stop traveling, we will be in more danger,” Steves insisted. “We need, as a society, to continue traveling. We are really inclined to think that we are the norm. We are really inclined to think that we are exceptional. You can really feel like everyone else is evil, that we’re the norm, that God loves us more, and all that kind of stuff. And when you travel you realize we’re part of the whole family of nations. We’re four percent of this planet, and there’s 96 percent out there, and it’s good to get to know them.”