Fear has always been a barrier to travel. And, after 9/11, the US became even more fearful…and more isolated. Of course, there are serious risks that deserve our careful attention. But it's all too easy to mistake fear for actual danger. Statistically, even in the most sobering days of post-9/11 anxiety, travel to most international destinations remained safer than a drive to your neighborhood grocery store. Franklin D. Roosevelt's assertion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself feels just as relevant today as when he first said it in 1933.
While I don't want to seem paranoid, I worry that people in positions of power have become expert at manipulating the fear of the American people. History is rife with examples of leaders who use fear to distract, mislead, and undermine the will of the very people who entrusted them with power. Our own recent history is no exception. If you want to sell weapons to Columbia, exaggerate the threat of drug lords. If you want to build a wall between the US and Mexico, trump up the fear of illegal immigrants. If you want to invade Iraq, you say you "don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." If you want to build an expensive missile-defense system, terrify people with predictions of nuclear holocaust. My travels have taught me to have a healthy skepticism towards those who peddle fear. And in so many cases, I've learned that the flipside of fear is understanding.
I'm hardly a fearless traveler. I can think of many times I've been afraid before a trip. Years ago, I heard that in Egypt, the beggars were relentless, there were no maps, and it was so hot that car tires melted to the streets. For three years, I had plane tickets to India but bailed out, finding other places closer to my comfort zone. Before flying to Iran to film a public television show, I was so uneasy, I nearly left our big video camera in Greece for its own safety. But in each case, when I finally went to these countries, I realized my fears were unfounded.
I got an email recently from a man who wrote, "Thanks for the TV shows. They will provide a historical documentation of a time when Europe was white and not Muslim. Keep filming your beloved Europe before it's gone."
Reading this, I thought how feisty fear has become in our society. A fear of African Americans swept the USA in the 1960s. Jews have been feared in many places throughout history. And today, Muslims are feared. But we have a choice whether or not to be afraid.
Of course, terrorism — which, by its very nature, is designed to be emotional and frighten the masses — makes it more difficult to overcome fear. But my travels have helped me distinguish between the fear of terrorism…and the actual danger of terrorism. I was in London on 7/7/07…a date the Brits consider their 9/11. A series of devastating bombs ripped through the subway system, killing 52 and injuring about 700 people. Remembering the impact of 9/11 on the United States, I thought, "Oh my goodness, everything will be shut down."
Instead, I witnessed a country that, as a matter of principle, refused to be terrorized by the terrorists. The prime minister returned from meetings in Scotland to organize a smart response. Within a couple of days, he was back in Scotland, London was functioning as normal, and they set out to catch the bad guys — which they did. There was no lingering panic. People mourned the tragedy, even as they kept it in perspective. The terrorists were brought to justice, Britain made a point to learn from the event (by reviewing security on public transit and making an effort to deal more constructively with its Muslim minority)…and life went on.
The American reaction to the shocking and grotesque events of 9/11 is understandable. But seeing another society respond so differently to its own disaster forced me to grapple with a new perspective. If the goal of terrorists is to terrify us into submission, then those who refuse to become fearful stand defiantly against them.
Every time I'm stuck in a long security line at the airport, I reflect on one of the most disconcerting results of terrorism: The very people who would benefit most from international travel — those who needlessly fear people and places they don't understand — decide to stay home. I believe the most powerful things an individual American can do to fight terrorism are to travel a lot, learn about the world, come home with a new perspective, and then work to help our country fit more comfortably and less fearfully into this planet.