By DAVID SHAFTEL
June 8, 2017
Every time my anxiety about travel seems to have subsided, new horrific and deadly terrorist attacks in Britain, like the one at London Bridge on Saturday, close to where my wife and I once lived, and the bombing just days before at the Manchester Arena, have brought my worries back to the fore, especially since we’re off to London in a couple of weeks.
But while I can’t seem to outrun the creep of travel anxiety, I remain committed to traveling, and this, I’ve found, is the best tonic. My wife and I consider ourselves respectably prolific travelers, even as we raise two young children in New York. We met as journalists in Cambodia shortly before Sept. 11 and lived in India and England, where she is from.
Even the most hardened travelers have to admit a certain amount of fear while traveling in this era of heightened global terrorism. My fellow travelers seem jittery too. I was on a tiny regional jet from Knoxville, Tenn., to New York last summer — a harrowing experience at the best of times — when our flight was diverted to Erie, Pa., because of, as far as I could tell, a rumor of rain at La Guardia Airport. As we headed hundreds of miles out of our way, I heard a fellow passenger ask the flight attendant if there had been a terrorist attack at our original destination. It wasn’t a far-fetched situation. A few days later two terminals at Kennedy International Airport were closed and terrified travelers fled for cover when gunshots were reported — mistakenly, it turned out.
The travel industry seems attuned to these fears. I was depressed recently to come across a product — the Multi-Threat Shield — which has “the appearance of a laptop computer bag,” but, when an active shooter is on the loose, “a quick flip of the wrist swiftly deploys a three-foot-long blanket of protection to defeat multiple impacts from most handgun, shotgun and pistol-caliber submachine gun threats.” The bag itself, however, could be made obsolete by the proposed laptop ban, which Wired suggested only increases the collective unease without necessarily making anyone safer (although I suspect my wife would be pleased if I wasn’t allowed to take my laptop on vacation).
I’ve been rewarded, though, by quashing the impulse to stay home. And so will other travelers, I suspect. While it’s tricky to predict the impact the recent U.K. attacks will have on travel, industry experts say it is likely to be minimal in the long run, partially because Britain is now relatively cheap for Americans. The more I travel, the more I feel at ease about traveling. My anxiety generally rears its head in the run-up to a trip. When we’re actually traveling, those fears tend to be displaced by more practical matters, like whether we have enough diapers, snacks and patience to last through the day.
When I indulge my worst fears, the scenarios I’ve come to fear are most likely rooted in the three years I spent as an expatriate in Mumbai, which has suffered multiple terrorist attacks in recent years. The most notorious was the three-day siege of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other sites in 2008 by militants who sailed from Pakistan carrying little more than machine guns. The raid left more than 160 people dead, many of them tourists and hotel guests and workers who had been held hostage before being executed. The siege happened shortly before we arrived in India. It didn’t affect our decision to move there but led to a heightened state of security in our neighborhood near the Taj, where numerous permanent measures had been put into effect: soldiers walking the beat, barriers erected, public Wi-Fi in nearby cafes disconnected and elaborate paperwork rituals required to check into hotels and internet cafes.
Thoughts of the siege of the Taj came back to me in late 2015, when my then 2-year-old daughter and I accompanied my wife, Flora, a travel editor, on a business trip to Marrakesh, Morocco, a city I had wanted to visit since reading about the Rolling Stones’ swinging parties there in the 1960s and Winston Churchill drinking Champagne and gin cocktails at La Mamounia, one of the world’s classic hotels. I didn’t give a second thought to the security situation.
But on our first day in the hotel, when my wife was at a conference, I decided to take a peek at the State Department’s travel advisory for Marrakesh, which declared right off the bat, “The potential for terrorist violence against U.S. interests and citizens exists in Morocco.” A curtain of panic descended, my heart began to race and I began to feel guilty for exposing my daughter to what were essentially worst-case possibilities cooked up by my overactive imagination. Nevertheless, I spent the afternoon imagining terrifying scenes involving terrorists in full-face ski masks emerging from the distant Atlas Mountains, wreaking havoc on the golf course that stretched out before my balcony, before invading the hotel itself in a Mumbai-style siege.
I said nothing to my wife, and after a tense few hours, my anxiety passed. On our last night in Marrakesh, my iPhone pinged with news of the Paris attacks that November, each alert showing a higher death toll and revealing scarier details as the hostage situation unfolded. As I watched the frustratingly inconclusive BBC footage, I was overcome with an acute homesickness. I couldn’t articulate why; I just had a feeling I would be safer at home, back in New York, of all places. News that one of the attackers was of Moroccan descent only amplified my worry. I knew the attacks in no way made my own situation more perilous — indeed, behavior economists say that a heightened sense of collective fear actually makes us more vigilant and therefore safer — but it was surprisingly saddening to be so far from home when such a terrible scene was unfolding in a completely different part of the world.
But have my anxieties about terrorism been blown out of proportion? When my fears run wild, triggered currently by the image of attackers on June 3 wielding long knives and bearing down on Borough Market in London, which has always been one of my favorite spots in the city, I find that it helps to put those fears into perspective. For example, the United States’ epidemic of gun violence claims far more lives than domestic terrorism (a frightening thought in itself). Indeed, during the same week as my diversion to Erie and the scare at Kennedy Airport, the Transportation Security Administration found a record 78 firearms in carry-on bags nationwide, 68 of which were loaded.
It helps to remember that my panic is fueled by constant reminders of the terror threat, as is the case now in London, with the increased presence of heavily armed police officers and soldiers on the street, especially in places where tourists gather.
But while frequent travelers, such as myself, might be embarrassed to find themselves thinking about which targets might be the most vulnerable, experts suggest we put these risks into context. Travelers should not discount a threat of terrorism that has been given a higher profile because of the increasing frequency of attacks and the way they are covered in the news media, but neither should they exaggerate it, said Rob Walker of the risk consultancies International SOS and Control Risks. “By far and away the biggest risk that most travelers will face is road safety,” Mr. Walker said. “That applies pretty much wherever you are in the world.”
This is a fact that resonates with me. Looking back, the riskiest behavior I can remember taking part in while traveling was riding a few times in a speeding taxi on a motorway in Bangkok, where buckled seatbelts are seen as a sign of weakness.
Morocco, too, was perilous, it turned out, but not in the way I thought it might be in the depths of my anxiety: One of our hotel rooms was burglarized by a chambermaid; I tore a tendon in my calf playing tennis; my wife and daughter held an allegedly defanged cobra in Jemaa el Fna, the main market square in Marrakesh; and I acquired a Category 5 hangover from Churchill’s signature cocktail, which it turns out is geared more toward functioning alcoholics than holidaymakers. In other words, it was a typical vacation, filled with garden-variety danger.
George Morgan-Grenville, the founder of Red Savannah, a high-end tour operator in England, said the best way to become inured to fears of terrorism was to travel more. “When people have traveled to destinations where they have initially been nervous of going to and they haven’t encountered anything adverse,” he said, “they come back correspondingly more relaxed about traveling again in the future.”
It’s true: The more I travel in today’s security climate, and refuse to alter my behavior, the better I feel about travel — and the sillier I feel afterward for worrying. I would deeply regret hunkering down in our hotel this summer instead of taking my daughter to see Big Ben and London Bridge, sites she recognizes from children’s literature. True, the old London Bridge of the nursery rhyme came down centuries ago, but I would never bother trying to explain that to a 3-year-old who also calls the Pulaski Skyway in New Jersey “London Bridge.” Neither should I have to explain to her why there are so many police officers wielding large guns there.