Last week’s terrorist attack in Barcelona, in which 13 people were killed while peacefully strolling on a summer afternoon, will have left many people wondering whether or not to travel at the moment, especially to Europe.
Particularly upsetting was the photo of 43-year-old American Jared Tucker and his wife, on their one-year wedding anniversary, showing them enjoying a break in a café on Las Ramblas just one hour before the event. About 30 seconds after he got up to find a bathroom, he was mown down and killed.
The Catalan capital was just the latest in a series of attacks on major European cities, including Paris, Nice, Brussels, Manchester, London, Stockholm and Berlin. One cannot help but think how all the victims of these attacks would have been better off staying at home. Wouldn’t it be simpler to just hide away in safety, instead of putting ourselves out there, in potential danger?
Yet this is a false belief. Fortunately or unfortunately, you are still much more likely to die in a car accident on your way to work than find yourself at the centre of a random terrorist attack, by whatever means.
In 2016, 615 million people visited Europe, the vast majority without incident. France is still the world's number one tourist destination, with 82.6 million arrivals; the United States, where tens of thousands of people are killed and injured every year in often random gun violence, is number two, with close to 80 million. And at number three, with 75.6 million visitors in 2016, is Spain.
And while cities are doing more to protect potential targets from the threat of attack, including ramming by vehicles, there are things we can do to at least feel that we’re as prepared as we could be for the worst.
Whenever I’m in a new place, be it a café, shopping mall, airport or theatre, I do find myself locating the nearest exits and hiding points. What would I do, which way would run? I also tend to take a look at the people around me. Is anyone acting suspiciously? Once I’ve given the situation a quick once over, I go back to relaxation mode.
Earlier this year, I landed at Fort Lauderdale International Airport in Florida half an hour before a passenger opened fire at the Terminal 2 baggage carousel. The gun had been checked into his hold luggage on a Delta flight from Alaska, and he simply pulled it out, loaded and started shooting. Five people were killed and six others were injured.
I happened to be travelling with hand luggage only on that day, and, after passing through immigration, I cleared the airport in about a minute, as my transfer driver was waiting for me. When I flew back out of the same airport five days later, despite high security, I was hyper-vigilant at departures, often the weak point in an airport since anybody can walk in, all the way to where the security checks start. Before arrival at the airport I checked in online, printed my boarding pass and emptied my hand luggage of liquids, so once I got there I proceeded as quickly as possible to the security queue.
But it is most important that we continue to travel. Not because, as so many western commentators like to argue, “we won’t let terrorists change our way of life”, but because travel and the people-to-people contact that it provides is the best insurance against war and terrorism there is.
In this globalised world, we have to hope that the bonds and shared understanding between billions are stronger than the damaged caused by a few evil individuals.