'NEWEST NORMAL' IN A POST-9/11 WORLD
By Joe Brancatelli
September 11, 2013 --On the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, I believe that one thing is clear: The business-travel world is divided into pre-9/11 thinking and post-9/11 realities.
In those naive and callow days before 9/11, we thought we knew so much: how terrorists thought, how they'd act, where they'd strike, how we could protect ourselves. We'd wave the flag and remind people that staying home was handing the bad guys a victory. As I leaf through the reams of material written by journalists, columnists and supposed experts on terrorists, the pre-9/11 mindset seemed fixed on the thought that we could contain the terror, compartmentalize our risks, evaluate the rewards and win the war if we just kept calm and carried on.
But that World War II motivational exhortation and the Wilsonian belief that we were required to make the world safe for democracy has seemed hollow since the terrorist attacks of 2001. We're weary of war now, skeptical of the "truth" about anything, as wary of our leaders as we are of the bad guys and convinced that there is little we can do to stop terrorism—or even fairly identify who deserves the label.
On the day after President Barack Obama suggested we might have to go to the front lines again, business travelers have become nihilists on the issue of terrorism. We shrug our metaphoric shoulders and then look over them and wonder who'll hit us next, how we'll adjust and why we should even waste a second worrying about what we can't seem to control.
Be afraid and go anyway
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in a Middle Eastern restaurant with a frequent traveler who was hesitating about an upcoming trip to Israel and Jordan. I listened to his concerns—all very rational and intelligent—and heard myself say: "Be afraid and go anyway."
My point was essentially that the Middle East hasn't been "safe" since Biblical times. Another tyrant or another war isn't going to change that. If you wait for a time when a tinderbox like the Middle East will be safe, you'll probably never get there. My take on things was vigorously supported by another luncheon guest, who went to Israel within weeks of the Six Day War in 1967.
If, however, you say the Middle East is the wrong place to go at this specific moment, I reply: Where do you know it is safe? Paris? Well, what if French president Francois Hollande joins us in Syria. London? It has its own homegrown terrorism problem. Tokyo, which last weekend won the rights to the 2020 Olympic Games due in part to its perceived safety? I remind you of the 1995 sarin gas attack. Latin America is a hot bed of revolution and separatism. From the Sahara to the Cape of Good Hope, Africa is a mess. There are problems and armed insurrection throughout Asia.
So where's really safe? As far as I can tell, we're down to Lichtenstein, Luxembourg, Bhutan and a little village in the Australian Outback. If you cut out anything that isn't safe, it really is a small world after all. So I guess you could go to Disney World—assuming you can afford it.
Do some homework
While the eyes of the world were firmly focused the Syria crisis, on Monday a rogue group of Islamic separatists mounted an audacious naval attack on Mindinao in the Philippines. They clashed with government troops and took hostages. The action threw a spanner in delicate peace talks between the Philippine government and the main group representing the Mindinao separatists.
You say you didn't know there was a separatist action in Mindinao? No surprise, really. In their quest for ratings, the U.S. commercial news networks now cover virtually no international news. And newspaper reporting on international affairs has been eviscerated, too.
Where do you go to keep up with world events and any possible threats that could impact your travel? Believe it or not, start with the much-maligned State Department. One example: State's "consular information sheet" for the Philippines includes a section on separatist actions in Mindinao. In fact, back in July, the State Department issued a separate Travel Warning for the Philippines due to unrest in Mindinao.
The good news is State compiles similarly detailed reports for every nation on the planet. Despite the claim of some critics that State Department data reflects the bias of our political leaders, I've found the information extremely useful as I planned overseas travel.
Another idea? Broaden your news horizons. You can find BBC World News on some cable providers and a half-hour program called BBC World News America airs on many PBS stations. Literally hundreds of other news broadcasts from around the world can be found on the Internet. And you can find a good collection of global newspapers on the Web here.
Don't listen to me
Finally, here's something I'm loathe to admit: As a journalist, I may be the worst person to listen to on the topic of travel and terrorism. Not just me, in fact, but all journalists.
Journalists, after all, are trained to run toward trouble. When something awful happens in the world, we're the ones who eagerly jump on the next flight and try to get there. It's not for nothing we call the tactic "parachuting in" to cover a story.
So maybe we're not the best judges of what's safe and what's too dangerous. By nature and nurture, we can't imagine not being where the action is. That's probably not a rational way to look at things—and it certainly colors the advice we dispense to average business travelers.
For more than a decade after the horrific events of 9/11—and for decades before—journalists equated staying home to surrender. But we're just flat-out wrong. Maybe traveling isn't always the best advice. Maybe flying the flag and climbing on an aircraft to a distant land isn't the smartest thing to do when you don't feel safe.
If your state of mind is to stay home, stay home. You might slip in the bathtub and die in your own home, but that, at least, would be your choice.
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 © 2013 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2013 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.