FEAR, LOATHING AND FATIGUE ON TERROR
By Joe Brancatelli
May 4, 2011 -- Just like clockwork, the U.S. State Department issued a new worldwide travel alert on Sunday night after President Barack Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden. The State Department has issued dozens of similar terrorism-related alerts (and more serious travel warnings) in recent years.
Just like clockwork, here I am at Seat 2B writing about travel in the time of terrorism. This is my ninth column about security and travel terrorism in less than four years.
The difference between State and me? I'm worried about fear and loathing (and fatigue) when it comes to the topic. How many times can you tell travelers (business or otherwise, savvy or otherwise) the same basic strategies? How many times can you recycle the same tactics for staying safe, no matter how useful or important?
"Americans are prone to tune out," a recently retired State Department careerist told me on Monday afternoon. "So we repeat, restate, recast, anything to generate attention."
I won't do that. I posted some thoughts about why we should be on guard against terrorist attacks against travel targets in the early hours of Monday morning. I'd urge you to revisit some of my previous columns on terrorism, too.
But what makes us so blasé about terrorism in 2011 that the topic seems stale? Are our attention spans so short and our sense of personal safety so dulled that we simply don't care anymore? Is September 11, 2001, too long ago, the transit attacks in Madrid (2004) and London (2005) too far away, the terrorism in Mumbai (2008), Moscow (in January), and Marrakech (last month) too exotic?
I think not. I hope not. I'm convinced business travelers are smarter than that. In talking and emailing with some over the last 36 hours and discussing human nature with supposed "experts" of all types, I have some ideas why we aren't nearly as concerned about travel terrorism as we should be.
Fear of Flying
It was exactly 50 years ago this month that the first U.S. commercial airliner was hijacked to Cuba. Flyers have been contending with terror in the skies ever since. Every terror attack of any type against any airplane naturally leads even hardcore business travelers to wonder whether they should fly. And the only thing that they seem to hate more than the travel itself is not traveling on business. They don't like having to question their personal safety or to worry about the security of the commercial airline system they have to trust every day of their lives.
"A lot of travelers really do fear paralysis by analysis," a corporate travel manager said to me on Monday afternoon. They don't want to admit to themselves that terrorism could affect them. So they don't think about it. They rationalize. They think ignoring it will make it go away."
My Way on the Highway
Self-delusion as a method to keep on keeping on is one thing. Self-serving assumptions about how the world looks at "terror" is something else. Far too many otherwise smart business travelers I contacted in the last two days seem to think the world is unanimous in cheering the demise of bin Laden. Far too many otherwise savvy "experts" are outraged that Western news outlets are covering the fact that bin Laden is still seen as a hero and now viewed as a martyr in some parts of the world.
In theory, terrorism is easy to define: It's any violent act against innocents in pursuit of social, political, or military goals. In reality, though, it's all in the eye of the beholder. Assuming that everyone agrees with your view of who is a terrorist (and who isn't an innocent) is guaranteed to make you sloppy in your worldview and unsafe as a business traveler.
Like it or not, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda are seen as "holy warriors" in some parts of the world. Russians authorities are incensed that Chechen fighters, who they consider terrorists, are described as "rebels" and "separatists" in Western countries. Lots of luck even now trying to get agreement over the IRA in Northern Ireland or Basque ETA in Spain. Or consider this: The Fatah faction of the Palestine National Authority, which controls the Left Bank, officially cheered the demise of bin Laden. Hamas, which controls Gaza, mourned him.
I don't suggest that you're not permitted your own opinion of terrorism or should abandon your view of morality. But I do suggest that you grasp, intellectually and emotionally, that not everyone shares your sense of loathing. And some who disagree with you are more than willing to support those who would attack you.
Are We There Yet?
Many business travelers aren't gripped by fear or loathing. For them, it's simply fatigue. It's not only the "war on terrorism," which has dominated the 21st century. In the 1990s, the World Trade Center was attacked for the first time, our embassies were bombed in Africa, and there was the Oklahoma City bombing. Our former flag carriers, Pan Am and TWA, were constantly targeted in the 1980s. The 1970s were marked by the PLO raid on the Munich Olympics, IRA bombings in England, and all sorts of left- and right-wing terror groups in Europe. And "take this plane to Cuba" hijackings were a hallmark of air travel in the 1960s.
Few of us traveling on business have ever lived in a time when boarding an aircraft or checking into a hotel was free from the threat of terrorism. We've lived our lives on the road with bull's-eyes on our backs. Dragging that target around with our laptop and our luggage is a heavy burden. And it's difficult to live in an endless state of heightened awareness and constant suspicion.
No News Is Bad News
Every day that a plane isn't hijacked or an aircraft isn't bombed is a victory. But no news can be bad news because it gives travelers a false sense of security about their on-the-road safety and security.
Terrorists learned a lesson years ago that business travelers need to learn fast: Flights aren't the easiest target of opportunity anymore. All manner of changes since 9/11--hardened cockpit doors, engaged passengers and even the TSA's tactics--have made aircraft much less susceptible to attack. Planes may now be the strongest link in the travel chain.
As the terrorists have learned, however, there are richer travel targets. These so-called soft targets are easier to hit and generate just as much terror.
Hotels? The Taj Mahal Palace and the Oberoi Trident, two of Mumbai's poshest, were hit in 2008. Ground transportation? Rather than attack aircraft at the large air-travel hubs in London and Madrid, terrorists targeted the cities' rail and bus networks. Markets and other public places? You need look back only a week. Terrorists killed at least 16 people in a public square in Marrakech. And if they still want to target flyers, terror merchants need only look to airports. A Jeep filled with propane canisters was driven into the glass doors of Glasgow airport in 2007. And the bombing at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow in January ravaged public areas before the security checkpoints.
"Business travelers do not fully comprehend how much risk they face," says Thompson Greig, a British security consultant. "The plane is the safest place they can be. The threat is greater almost anywhere else on a trip. That's chilling, but, sadly, the truth."
The Fine Print…
English authorities on Monday arrested five men under British antiterror laws. The suspects, all from London, were apprehended in Cumbria, in isolated northwest England, near the Sellafield nuclear waste site. The Sellafield facility is the largest in Europe.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2011 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.