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Travel since 9/11

One of the questions that regular travelers get asked most often is, ‘five years on, how has 9/11 changed things?’

That’s not an easy question to answer, though if we’re going to make an effort we have to say that the answer is in two parts, because travel itself is a two-part occupation: first there’s the traveling, then there’s the arriving.

It seems perverse to say it, but the actual business of travel – getting on a plane at one airport and getting off at another – has in some ways improved. The world was a dangerous place before 11 September 2001, and you could convincingly argue that the events of that day only woke us up to the dangers out there. If something positive came out of the collapse of the twin towers, it was the determination of airlines around the world to take security much more seriously. Sure, security had always been called a priority, but the actions of Mohammed Atta and his vicious colleagues demonstrated that most airlines, especially those operating domestic flights, possibly didn’t take it quite seriously enough. For a terrorist to seize a plane in flight now, or to blow it up in midair, would be much more difficult that it was prior to 9/11. That’s not to say it would be impossible: Richard Reid, the notorious “Shoe Bomber” came close to proving that. But improved security has made airlines sufficiently unattractive targets that terrorists seem to have switched their energies elsewhere.

The direction they’ve moved in, sadly, seems to be cities: London and Madrid have proved that. But to what extent should we really be worried about terrorism while we’re traveling or on vacation? The truth is that although we should be on our guard, worrying is pointless. Despite the increase in anti-western terrorist activity since 2001, any given American is still very unlikely to be killed or injured in a terrorist attack. Even in 2001, when nearly 3000 Americans were killed in the September 11th attacks, if you were a citizen of the US you were still seven times more likely to be killed in a firearms incident in which the weapon was fired by a fellow American. In any other year that likelihood is even greater. It’s a sad indictment of some US cities that you’re probably much safer abroad. In fact, in statistical terms, you’d be much safer in nearly many large Middle Eastern city than in some US cities.

So it’s important to remember that since 9/11 our perceptions have changed more than the world has. Looking back on the 1990s, they seem like an age of innocence – the Cold War was over and the War on Terror had yet to begin. But that’s not really the case. The world is not a much more dangerous place now that it was then.

However, the price of freedom being eternal vigilance, it’s always a good idea to keep a watchful eye out when you’re in foreign locations that could be potential terrorist targets. That doesn’t mean you should get jumpy every time somebody wearing traditional Muslim dress sits next to you on the subway – that kind of behavior only makes the problem worse in the end. However, you can make your life, and the lives of anyone else, easier and safer.

First, if you do see something that worries you – someone behaving oddly or nervously, especially in a crowded place – don’t be afraid to seek help or inform the authorities. The incident may turn out to be completely harmless, but it’s good to be careful.

Second, don’t leave your bags and baggage unattended. There’s a good chance, in the current climate that if you do this while you pop the bathroom that you’ll find the area evacuated on your return. If you’re lucky, you’ll simply have to explain yourself to an irate cop. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get to see all your possessions go up in smoke in a controlled explosion. It’s common security sense not to leave things lying around in any case, so just act wisely.

Third, make sure you’re carrying ID at all times. There’s no morbid reason for this except that if the city you’re in happens to be in an incident, while it’s very unlikely you’ll be hurt, it’s quite probable that you’ll suffer some sort of displacement or inconvenience. Evidence that you’re a US citizen, plus maybe a few spare dollars or units of the local currency in cash, can come in very useful.

So the answer to the question is simple: travel hasn’t changed that much. Though maybe it’s made us a little more careful about things we should have thought more about anyway. If you’re vigilant and keep your wits about you, you’ll almost certainly enjoy many years of trouble-free traveling.

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