WHEN IT ALL WENT BAD ON THE ROAD
By Joe Brancatelli
June 26, 2014 --You probably haven't thought about Archduke Franz Ferdinand lately, but his life — and especially his death — has had more impact on business travel than anyone save the Wright Brothers.
As you may dimly recall from high-school history, Austria's ill-fated Franz Ferdinand was assassinated 100 years ago this Saturday, June 28. That act of political terrorism was the immediate cause of World War I and that conflict destroyed the Ottoman Empire and ended Turkish hegemony over the Middle East. The senseless post-war realignment of the region has been the font of most of the terrorism that has plagued business travel ever since.
Think I'm looking to hang our most intractable travel issue on a hundred-years dead Hapsburg royal who drove down the wrong street in the wrong city at the wrong time? Consider: the war that engulfed the world within weeks of his murder spawned the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which blithely ignored millennia of tribal loyalties the Middle East. It led to the Balfour Declaration, the diplomatic underpinnings of the modern state of Israel and reactionary Palestinian rage. The aftermath of the war allowed the House of Saud to oust the Hashemites from Arabia. Then the British arbitrarily imported the Hashemites to rule Syria, Jordan and the woebegone political entity called Iraq. World War I also shredded the underpinnings of colonial Africa.
I am not foolish enough to suggest terrorism is the sole province of the religious, social and sectarian problems in the Middle East and Africa. In fact, the foundation of our modern security kabuki at airports has its roots in the "take-this-plane-to-Cuba" hijackings of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski were home-grown threats. Narco-terrorism is everywhere. And North Korean godless dictators seem to delight in arresting and detaining innocent travelers.
But it would also be foolish to ignore the obvious: Arab, African and Muslim issues almost totally dominate today's terrorism landscape.
Of the more than three dozen current State Department Travel Alerts and Warnings, the vast majority involve Muslim insurgencies, sectarian conflicts and/or paramilitary activity by Islamic extremist groups such as Boko Haram (Nigeria, Cameroon), ISIS (Syria, Iraq), Al-Qaida affiliates (Yemen, Mali, Niger), al-Nusrah (Lebanon), Al Shabaab (Kenya, Djibouti, Somalia) and the Taliban (Pakistan, Afghanistan). There are low-level, but no less dangerous, Muslim insurgencies in Thailand and the Philippines. Moreover, State's sole Worldwide Caution also involves Muslim activity, a panoply of global threats from England to Central Asia to India and beyond.
"Not a week goes by that we don't get an alert from one intelligence agency or another warning about a threat on our planes," one U.S. carrier's top security man told me last week. "The supposed perpetrators are always jihadis."
Talk to any global lodging executive and they rarely bring up narco-terrorists or financially inspired kidnappings. Their big worry is an Islamic extremist group targeting one of their hotels as a way to show hatred for Western countries and Western values.
"I quiver whenever my bosses tell me we're opening another hotel in the Middle East," one hotelier recently told me. "I understand the financial angle. I understand our customers want and need those hotels, but I'm at a loss to guarantee anyone's safety."
I have no answers on offer here. We've discussed how to travel in a time of terrorism, the realities of travel terrorism and terrorism specific to lodgings. We've even discussed terror fatigue. But answers are elusive.
Worse is a chilling realization: Terrorism works. Have you been to Afghanistan or Pakistan lately? Done business in Iraq or Syria? Been to Bali since the bombings? Visited the pyramids in Egypt? Do you get on a train in Spain without thinking of the March 11 attacks in 2004? Old-timers claim Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. But Lebanon has been considered a no-go zone all of my adult travel life. Anyone contemplating a visit to the Holy Land always must answer the most basic question: Is it safe?
Perhaps worst of all, too many business travelers I know have gone realpolitik about the state of the world and the never-ending waves of terrorism that makes life on the road so dangerous.
"Why should we intervene in Iraq again while the Sunni and Shia are tearing each other to pieces?" frequent traveler Thomas Byrnes wrote me in an email from London late last week. "Can you tell me why I should worry if Iran jumps in on the side of the Shia warlord Maliki? Would it be so awful if the Sunni puppeteers in Qatar and Saudi Arabia are so engaged fighting Iran that they can't fund the terrorists out to get us?"
I know Byrnes, who works for a global NGO (non-governmental organization) and travels frequently throughout the Middle East. At least until recently, he was convinced that the region's future was brighter than many politicians claimed. His sudden cynicism makes me despair.
And that brings us back to poor Archduke Ferdinand, who took a bullet 100 years ago this weekend and unwittingly unleashed a century of terrorism, far too much of it in the name of someone's definition of a supreme being.
Twenty-five years ago, historian David Fromkin wrote a book about the "war to end all wars" called A Peace to End All Peace. His dissection of what went so spectacularly wrong in the chop-shop creation of the post-war Middle East was and is depressingly useful.
Or maybe it's even simpler than that. The English poet and author Edmund Blunden fought in World War I and summed it up with brutal clarity.
"The War had won," he wrote, "and would go on winning."
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.
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