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Travel Safety and Civil Liberties: Fear vs. Danger

by Edward Hasbrouck, author of "The Practical Nomad"

Fear has devastated the travel "industry" since 11 September 2001, with air travel in the USA down by half and more than a million people laid off in travel, tourism, and hospitality, mainly from already poorly-paid jobs in hotels and restaurants. (While the USA has given US$15 billion to airline stockholders, nothing has been done yet by the government to assist affected workers.)

So what are you afraid of? And how can -- and should -- we deal with our fears about travel?

Fear is nothing to be ashamed of. Fear is instinctive, whether it be fear of flying, fear of the unknown, or fear of rats and vermin -- the worst fear for Winston in 1984, and for some of the contestants on the current travel reality TV series The Amazing Race. Fear serves a purpose in the human animal: it warns us of danger. And our most irrational fears ("phobias") are, almost by definition, those least subject to conscious control.

Be honest with yourself about your fears. If you know you'll be too frightened to have a good time, or a productive trip, it doesn't really matter whether your fears are well founded. You may want to try to change your fears, or learn to deal with them differently. But that may not be quick or easy, or possible at all. If you can't overcome your fear, you should change your plans, and do something less scary that you can enjoy .

Because fear is perceived as a sign of danger, our instinct is to assume that whatever is scary is dangerous, and that the degree of danger we're in is proportional to the fear we feel.

Most people are aware that the correlation between fear and danger isn't perfect. But there's far more difference between the real dangers to travelers and what makes us afraid than most people imagine. That's two reasons to read a good guidebook before you go to a place you haven't been before: to find out the dangers you don't know to be afraid of, and to find out the scary-seeming things that are really harmless and nothing you need to worry about.

Serious problems tend to arise when we attack the sources of our fears while mistaking them for sources of danger.

We're afraid of flying, for example, so we avoid flying, even though the alternatives are actually much more dangerous. The contestants on "The Amazing Race" are slowed down, and some are almost stopped, by relatively harmless rats. But they blithely set out on long cab rides on secondary roads at night in Third World countries like India where road travel is the leading cause of injury to tourists and the U.S. State Department's Consular Information Sheet says bluntly, " Travel by road is dangerous. Travel at night is particularly hazardous."

Similarly, we avoid the unknown, the "foreign", because it raises our instinctive fear of the unknown -- not because "strange" places are actually more dangerous than our daily lives at home.

The contestants on "The Amazing Race" almost all talked about how frightening and difficult it was to deal with India. Trying to do things in a hurry in India, as the race necessitates, is a recipe for a bad trip. But is it really the most dangerous place they've been? Not at all. Statistically speaking, it's one of the safest (except for the roads). Very few other countries are actually as dangerous, or have so much violent crime, as the USA. What's really different about India, especially for those of the contestants who've never been out of the USA before? India is more different, more "strange", less known, and thus instinctively more frightening regardless of actual risk.

Looked at in terms of danger, it's hard to understand the decision by so many Americans in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th to confine their travel to the USA -- the place that is under attack -- rather than leaving for safer places abroad. Looked at in terms of instinctive fear of the unknown, it makes perfect sense: when you're afraid, you avoid the scary -- and anything strange is scary.

As I discussed in an earlier article, profiling" of airline passengers proved a failure on September 11th, in terms of safety. But because the profile matches the profile of most people's fears, selectively searching those who fit the profile is highly effective in allaying those fears (except, of course, if we're in the class of people, mainly those of South Asian or Arab ancestry, being selected for special scrutiny) even if it doesn't make us any safer.

[Update: Instead of getting rid of profiling, the USA government has proposed a series of expanded, "enhanced", and even more invasive airline passenger profiling systems, first CAPPS-II and then Secure Flight and Registered Traveler. Public comments on the Secure Flight proposal are being accepted through 25 October 2004. See the Privacy and Travel section of my blog for more recent updates.]

Many people understand, intellectually if not emotionally, that making travel safer won't necessarily make it less scary. What's less obvious, but at least equally important, is that making travel less scary won't necessarily make it any safer. The greatest danger for travelers in the present situation is that, in order to allay our instinctive fears, we'll attack people and things who pose no real danger -- and, in so doing, attack our own freedom and security, ultimately making ourselves less safe. That would be a tragic consequence indeed, for travelers and civil liberties alike.

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