Terrorism and Travel

All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.

—NICCOLÒ MACHIAVELLI, The Prince

Imagine you live in a small town, population 10,000. On an average day you’ll come across people you know, but most will be only vaguely familiar or complete strangers. God decides that he wants to hold a raffle where one person, no matter their age, can win $25,000. There is no cost of entry, just living there is enough that you are entered to win. Everyone is issued their ticket, anxiously anticipating the outcome…


People keep telling me that they refuse to go to Europe because they think it’s too dangerous. When I prod a little, they provide the “fact” that there’s so much terrorism of late. Europe – a collection of 50 countries, most of which have not had any attention from terrorists. One of my friends even reconsidered the destination of his honeymoon from Italy to Greece for fear of potential terrorist attacks. (There have been no terrorist attacks in Italy since 1985.)

The thing is, it doesn’t seem to matter where the people I’ve spoken to are from (save for maybe Europeans themselves). Chinese, Americans, and Canadians alike – they all seem to want to avoid the danger. Hell, people told me not to move to China because of how dangerous it is, despite the Chinese believing it to be the epitome of safety. Surprise: it’s not.

Let’s consider how ridiculous this is…

I was compelled to finally write this after, once more, explaining how unlikely we are to die from terrorist plots – even if an event is taking place next to us.

I’m defining “dangerous” as the high likelihood of harm or death. If we were all immortal, with our only weakness being the ever-nebulous “terrorism”, then perhaps we may want to avoid areas where terrorism has recently taken place. Unfortunately, that isn’t how the world works. Of the things that are going to kill you, terrorism doesn’t land anywhere near the top of the list.

What is going to kill you?

Death is mundane, and commonplace. We are not likely to die from quick sand, stepping on a boobytrap in an ancient tomb, or being purposely poisoned as so many children’s shows would have us believe. We are not action heroes; we are unlikely to die an action hero’s death.

This overestimation of risk seems to be due to a combination of the vividness effect – the more graphic/dramatic an event, the more we remember it – and availability bias – the easier it is to remember something, the more likely we think it will happen. How graphic do you find a plane crash, a bus exploding, or a man unloading his rifle into a crowd of civilians to be? Incredibly graphic! These are among the most graphic, dramatic images you’re liable to see outside of a horror flick, and are very convincing to our gut. Thus, we can think of all the examples we’ve heard, ignoring all the silent, inglorious, countless deaths that happen around us daily. We’re talking things like choking, food poisoning, falling off of a roof or in your shower, car accidents, cancer, and good ol’ fashioned neglected health.

Just take a look at the top 10 list of things that kill Americans (their numbers are really easy to find):

  1. Heart disease
  2. Cancer (malignant neoplasms)
  3. Chronic lower respiratory disease
  4. Accidents (unintentional injuries)
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases)
  6. Alzheimer’s disease
  7. Diabetes
  8. Influenza and pneumonia
  9. Kidney disease (nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis)
  10. Suicide

Note that the top 3 account for over 50% of deaths. Also, these numbers are from 2014.

What if a terrorist attacks when you’re on vacation?

In November, 2015, the Paris attacks consisted of 9 men who had a plan to attack several locations in heavily populated Paris. They had no time limit restraining their planning, they were trained, and they were fairly well equipped. Over the course of this event, 137 people were killed (including 7 of the perps; the other 2 were killed within a week), with the high estimate of injuries being around 370.

In total, that gives us 507 people. That’s 1/6 of the September 11th attacks. This is considered a very “successful” attack, as it wasn’t foiled and they hit the triple digits. I’ll grant that in absolute terms, this a horrible thing, and I wish it had never happened. That being said, how many people were in the region during the attacks?

5 of the 6 took place between Le Petit Cambodge and Comptoir Voltaire, the distance between them is roughly 3.5km. Let’s round down and say that the attack for those 5 locations took place over 2sqkm, and let’s allocate 0.5sqkm for the last location that was further away (Near the Stade de France). The average population density of Paris central is 20,169/sqkm. Multiply that by 2.5sqkm and we get ~50,422 people in the immediate area of the attacks while they were in progress. This is ignoring Friday night crowds, tourism off-season, and using the lower population numbers from 2008 (population in Paris grows by ~0.45% every year). I’m purposely selecting low-end population numbers with high-estimates of victims to find the most conservative estimates.

So, 507 people were directly affected by these attacks with 50,422 people in the immediate vicinity of the attacks. That works out to 0.01%, or 1 death per 10,000 people.

In other words, if you were within a quarter kilometer of the attacks (quarter kilometer diameter to cover the 0.5sqkm I accounted for), you had a 1 in 10,000 chance of being hurt or killed. Again, this is while the attack is taking place. The actual rate of terrorist attacks of this scale is astronomically low. For those unfamiliar with stats, you have to multiply the odds of two things happening together. If the chance of a terrorism attack was 1 in 100 on any given day, then your chance of being directly hurt at any time would drop to 1 in 1 million. Thankfully, the rate is much, much lower than that, meaning it’s probably in the 1 in billions or trillions. In fact, specialists say that the odds of a terrorist attack killing you entire your lifetime are lower than winning the jackpot of the lottery. How many jackpot winners do you have in your contacts list?

Speaking of lotteries, let’s jump back to the metaphor about God and the town of 10,000 people. Did you feel your odds were good for winning a million? How do you feel if suddenly someone scuffs God’s shoe, and he decides to give a car accident instead of money? That is the equivalent of your odds of hurt while standing within 500m of an armed terrorist attacking in Paris. That’s the same rate as the lifetime odds of dying in the United States from heat waves.

According to the Global Terrorism Database, since 1970 there have been 18,811 attacks killing 11,288 people. That means in the past nearly 50 years, there have been an average of 400 attacks per year killing 0.6 people each time. That’s 240 people per year across the entirety of Europe, which had a population of 743.1 million people in 2015!

Let’s compare again to the United states, which has less than half that population.

In that same year, here are some causes of death:

  • Cancer 15.8 per 10,000
  • Suicide 1.33 per 10,000
  • Flu/pneumonia 1.5 per 10,000
  • Heart disease (18 y/o and up) 1.16 per 10,000
  • Being at a one of the sites in Paris during the attack 1 per 10,000

The average American is 30% more likely to kill themselves over the course of any given year than someone within a square kilometre is to be hurt during the events of the 2015 Paris attacks.

Again, I’m not meaning to diminish the damage done. It was a horrible event. My point is that this event happened once, and was so bad that people call it Paris’ 9/11. Paris still stands, and the people continue to live their lives – as they should.

For terrorists, killing people is not the goal.

The goal of terrorism is to disrupt life, the normal political process, and people’s free actions through the fear that something might happen. Random events – aka random reinforcement – whether good or bad have a larger effect on people than predictable ones. We’re wired to weigh negative outcomes more, some say as much as 4x as heavily. Based on the goal of fear, the current security theatre in many airports (particularly the US) shows that terrorism is succeeding.

They caused us to waste huge amounts of money, fecklessly inconveniencing countless people everyday for the sake of appearing tough on terror. “But that’s just money, and lives are worth it” you may say, but what if the money had instead been spent on healthcare, infrastructure, or other life-saving services that every country needs? Money wasted does actually translate into lives lost, though it’s harder to quantify and is much less dramatic. Instead, we’re showing just how afraid we are and how much their schemes have bent us over.

The real damage done by this particular attack is that people are too afraid of going to the city of love. In short: we’re letting them win.

So what should you do?

The takeaway point is to not let fear control us. We should go where we want to go because it’s somewhere we always wanted to see, not simply because it appears to be the safer choice.

Live your life, irrelevant of the very idea of terrorism, as even letting it enter into your consideration means they’re achieving their goals. If you’ve avoided killing yourself, then you’re already beating the odds of them getting you. Be happy, go cool places, take lots of pictures, and watch out for the mundane things you already know how to avoid.

In the end, letting bloodthirsty assholes affect where you go in this wonderful world is letting them win without a fight, and nobody wants that.


Note: I chose the featured picture because I don’t want to further drive the point home that terrorism is something to be on our minds. Instead, I wanted to show Paris as the happy, peaceful place that it is.

 

2 thoughts on “Terrorism and Travel

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