On returning from the recent European vacation my wife and I took with our son, I was asked by more than a few friends and acquaintances if the threat of a terrorist attack caused me to question our decision to travel in Italy and France. I suppose it’s a reasonable question, since the new normal of our times is the ubiquity of terrorism in our world.
And, yes, I thought about the possibility that we could be victims of a terrorist attack as we booked our flights and planned our itinerary (the Westminster terrorist attack in London occurred as we were doing those things), but I really didn’t think of it at all once we were on our way and enjoying our vacation because by then I’d worked the calculus and thereby eliminated the irrational side of the fear. Allow me to explain.
Risks are part of life. In almost every activity, there is risk. Even the simple act of stretching includes the risk of muscle strain, as I found out a few years ago when I suffered for weeks with lower back pain that had developed suddenly during a simple stretch that I do every day as part of the warm-up routine for my workouts. More significant risks are present in a simple car ride to the neighborhood grocery store. In a previous column, I wrote about my decision to take a slightly longer route when driving home from my gym to avoid the minimal risk that a car coming from the other direction might veer into my turning lane on the shorter route.
So, obviously, I’m not one who ignores risks. I try to take them into account in many everyday decisions. And it would certainly be fair to say that in taking those risks into account, I am acknowledging the fear of a possible accident or calamity that those risks present.
But there are two kinds of fear. One is the kind of fear I attend to when I drive a slightly longer way home from my gym. It is a rational fear of a car accident at a relatively dangerous intersection balanced against the minimal disruption of my life that a slightly longer route entails (approximately 30 seconds). The likelihood of such an accident occurring just when I am waiting to make a left hand turn at that intersection is miniscule, but I have a fear of it (to my knowledge, at least one such accident there has occurred in the eleven years we’ve lived near the intersection). The fear is rational, but the reaction I take to avoid it is also rational (30 seconds of extra driving).
But fear of being a victim of a terrorist attack is a different kind of fear. It borders on paranoia when you work the calculus. First of all, the odds of being a victim of a terrorist attack are far smaller than the miniscule odds of my being struck by an oncoming car at that intersection, even if I choose, as we did, to fly on transcontinental flights to and from Europe where we vacationed for three weeks in high tourist areas, including two cities (Nice and Paris) that had been attacked in the recent past.
Think about it. Many transcontinental flights occur every day. Millions of tourists from all over the world flock to these destinations. The odds of being at the exact spot in the vast continent of Europe where a terrorist attack occurs (or on the precise flight that a terrorist manages to place a bomb on) are infinitesimal.
We are literally talking about the veritable “wrong place at the wrong time” when considering the odds of being the victim of a terrorist attack. Yes, they happen, often enough now to be part of a new normal of civilized life, and they are tragic for the victims and their loved ones who suffer from them and worrisome intrusions on our sense of security for the rest of us. But they are far less likely to victimize us than that we will slip on an unseen wet spot while walking in our home town and break a leg or that we will suffer food poisoning at our local restaurant or that we will die from a single bee sting from which we experience a sudden allergic reaction.
The other part of fear that completes the calculus is the means of avoiding the risk. In the case of that intersection near our home, the means by which I avoid the risk is entirely rational (an extra 30 seconds to get home). A recognized risk that is met with reasonable avoidance measures is a rational reaction to fear.
Terrorist attacks are real and they must be recognized as risks in overseas travel. But the means of avoiding them are limited, and all such means are, in the end, unreasonable since, in essence, they all boil down to staying home. And staying home to avoid the risk of a terrorist attack that is already infinitesimally small makes the fear irrational.
Now, to be sure, the calculus would be different if the contemplated vacation was to North Korea. There, as the death this week of Otto Warmbier clearly established, U.S. citizens are at significant risk, even if they do nothing more offensive than to take a propaganda sign off a public street. (Warmbier was held captive for 17 months and died while in a coma days after he was finally released by the North Koreans, who alleged he was a spy.) I would not take a vacation to sunny Pyongyang even if Dennis Rodman were my tour guide. There, my fear would be rational.
But Europe is beautiful and magnificent. The history and the art and the culture and the people are all amazing. I can’t wait to go back.
Terrorism stinks. The ideology that promotes it is disgusting, and the sick individuals who engage in it are despicable. But we can’t let them win, which is what we do if we give in to the irrational fear they seek to create. There may be many other good reasons to forego a European vacation, but the risk of a terrorist attack should not be one of them.