An excerpt from "Travel as a Political Act" by Rick Steves
"Fear has always been a barrier to travel. And, after 9/11, the U.S. became even more fearful... and more isolated. Of course, there are serious risks that deserve more careful attention. But it's all too easy to mistake fear for actual danger. Franklin D. Roosevelt's assertion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself feels just as relevant today as when he first said it in 1933.
I'm hardly a fearless traveler. I can think of many times I've been afraid before a trip. Years ago, I heard that in Egypt, the beggars were relentless, there were no maps, and it was so hot that car tires melted to the streets. For three years, I had plane tickets to India but bailed out, finding other places closer to my comfort zone. Before flying to Iran to film a public television show, I was uneasy. But in each case, when I finally went to these countries, I realized my fears were unfounded.
History is rife with examples of leaders who manipulate fear to distract, mislead, and undermine the will of the very people who entrusted them with power. Our own recent history is no exception. If you want to sell weapons to Colombia, exaggerate the threat of drug lords. If you want to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, trump up the fear of illegal immigrants. If you want to create an expensive missile-defense system, terrify people with predictions of nuclear holocaust. My travels have taught me to have a healthy skepticism toward those who peddle fear. And in so many cases, I've learned that the flipside to fear is understanding.
As travelers and as citizens, we react not to the risk of terrorism but to that perceived risk of terrorism- which we generally seem to exaggerate. For travelers, the risk is minuscule. Here are the facts: Year after year, about 12 million Americans go to Europe, and not one is killed by terrorists. In 2004, there was a horrific bombing in Madrid- no Americans killed. In 2005, there was a despicable bombing in London's subway and bus system- no Americans killed. In 2008, there was a terrible bombing in Istanbul- no Americans killed. This isn't a guarantee. <Something could happen to an American abroad.> But, tragic as that might be, it wouldn't change the fact that it is safe to travel. Statistically, even in the most sobering days of post 9/11 anxiety, travel to most international destinations remained no more dangerous than a drive to your neighborhood grocery store.
Why do we react so strongly to these events? The mainstream media are partly to blame. Sensationalizing tragedy gets more eyes on the screen. But it also exaggerates the impact of a disaster, causing viewers (understandably) to overreact. More than once I've found myself in a place that was going through a crisis that made international headlines- terrorist bombing, minor earthquakes, or riots. Folks from back home call me, their voices shaking with anxiety, to be sure I'm okay. They seem surprised when I casually dismiss their concern. Invariably, the people who live in that place are less worked up than the ones watching it on the news 5,000 miles away. I don't blame my loved ones for worrying. The media has distorted the event in their minds.
I got an email recently from a man who wrote, 'Thanks for the TV shows. They will provide a historical documentation of a time when Europe was white and not Muslim. Keep filming your beloved Europe before it's gone.'
Reading this, I thought how feisty fear has become in our society. A fear of African Americans swept the U.S. in the 1960s. Jews have been feared in many places throughout history. And today, Muslims are feared. But we have a choice whether or not to be afraid. Americans who have had the opportunity to travel in moderate Muslim nations like Turkey or Morocco- and been welcomed by smiling locals who gush 'We love Americans!'- no longer associate Islam with terrorism.
Of course terrorism- which, by its very nature, is designed to be emotional and frighten the masses- makes is more difficult to overcome fear. But my travels have helped me distinguish between the fear of terrorism... and the actual danger of terrorism. I was in London on 7/7/05, a date the Brits consider 'their 9/11.' A series of devastating bombs ripped through the subway system, killing 52 and injuring about 700 people. Remembering the impact of 9/11 on the U.S., I thought, 'Oh my goodness, everything will be shut down.'
Instead, I witnessed a country that, as a matter of principle, refused to be terrorized by the terrorists. The prime minister returned from meetings in Scotland to organize a smart response. Within a couple of days, he was back in Scotland, London was functioning as normal, and they set out to catch the bad guys- which they did. There was no lingering panic. People mourned the tragedy, even as they kept it in perspective. The terrorists were captured and brought to justice, Britain made a point to learn from the event (by reviewing security on public transit and making an effort to interact more constructively with its Muslim minority)... and life went on.
The American reaction to the shocking and grotesque events of 9/11 was understandable. But seeing another society respond so differently to its own disaster inspired me to grapple with a new perspective. If the goal of terrorists is to terrify us into submission, then those who refuse to become fearful stand defiantly against them.
Every time I'm stuck in a long security line at the airport, I reflect on one of the most disconcerting results of terrorism: The very people who would benefit most from international travel- those who needlessly fear people and places they don't understand- decide to stay home. I believe the most powerful things an individual American can do to fight terrorism are to travel a lot, learn about the world, come home with a new perspective, and then work to help our country fit more comfortably and less fearfully into this planet.
Terrorism by the Numbers
Reducing the tragedy of terrorist casualties to statistics strikes many people as disrespectful and callous. But I believe that when we overreact to the threat of the terrorist, we empower the terrorist and actually become a part of the problem. By setting emotion aside and being as logical as possible, we can weigh the relative risks and rewards or costs and benefits of various American behaviors.
Every three days, a 747's worth of people die on our highways. And it's not worth headlines. We're a mighty nation of 300 million people. People die. Some 400,000 people die on our roads every year. Anybody in that business knows if we all drove 20 miles an hour slower, we'd save thousands of precious lives. But in the privacy of the voting booth, is the average American going to vote to drive 50mph on our freeways to save thousands of lives? Hell, no. We've got places to go.
Consider hand guns. Thirteen thousand people die every year in our country because of handguns. You could make the case that that's a reasonable price to pay for the precious right to bear arms. We are a free and well-educated democracy. We know the score. And year after year, we seem to agree that spending these lives is a reasonable trade-off for enjoying our Second Amendment right.
Germans decided not to have that right to bear arms, and consequently they lose only about 1,000 people a year. Europeans (who suffer less than a quarter the per capita gun killings we do) laugh out loud when they hear that Americans are staying home for safety reasons. If you care about your loved ones (and understand the statistics) you'll take them to Europe tomorrow.
If we dispassionately surveyed the situation, we might similarly accept the human cost of our aggressive stance on this planet. We spend untold thousands of live a year for the rights to drive fast and bear arms. Perhaps 300 million Americans being seen by the rest of the world as an empire is another stance that comes with an unavoidable cost in human lives.
I know this is wild, but imagine we downgraded our 'War on Terror.' Fantasize for a moment about the money and energy we could save, and all the good we could do with those resources if they were compassionately and wisely diverted to challenges like global warming or the plight of desperate people (in lands that have no oil or strategic importance) whose suffering barely registers in the media. Imagine then the resulting American image abroad. We'd be tougher for our terrorist enemies to demonize. And imagine the challenge that would present to terrorist recruiters."