As our holiday trip to Belgium quickly approaches, my mind has been filled with constant fantasies of chilly holiday strolls with my family, toasty hot chocolate in hand. I’ve been waiting years to take this postcard-perfect trip through Bruges, Ghent and Brussels.
However, this week I was quickly sucked out of that fantasy world and my mindset went back to my law enforcement and threat assessment training and education.* We were contemplating adding a day trip to Paris during our trip abroad, but violent protests had us second-guessing that idea. And then it got worse; the shooting occurred in a Strasbourg Christmas market yesterday. That felt like a wake up call. What to do?
Usually something like that is happening on the other side of the world while we watch it on a box from our living rooms, shaking our heads. But this time is different. Knowing that I’m going have my loved ones with me in the same general area, doing the same Christmasy things that those victims were doing encouraged me to write this article.
As a behavioral scientist, I first look at this from a sterile, research perspective. The odds of being killed in a terrorist attack are approximately one in 20 million. You are actually twice as likely to be struck by lightning and much more at risk of being shot and killed close to your home.
Okay brain, I get it but my heart is not feeling any better.
As human beings, it is natural for us to personalize situations that tap into our emotions. The fact that the Strasbourg attack happened to people strolling through a Christmas market directly pulls at my core because I picture myself doing that exact thing in a couple of weeks. It feels more real and more scary, because we tend to believe that “feelings equal facts,” which is just not true. It’s a cognitive trick that our mind plays, even when the statistics prove different (i.e. the “odds” are still in my favor).
Now begs the question, am I willing to play those odds? The answer is yes, but I do not make that judgment call lightly. My decision is based on 1) a personal philosophy and 2) taking back control where I can. As far as my philosophy goes, I certainly hope that there never comes a day when travel ceases to exist because the violence is so out of control. Right now, I am certainly not going to let a particular group of extremists dictate how I live and enjoy my life. The enrichment of travel is just too important to me. Much of the world agrees with me. The fact is, tourism has remained resilient even with some increased terrorism-related violence worldwide. Tourism in countries bounces back from terrorist attacks quicker than after political unrest, disease epidemics or natural disasters.
Here are practical things I can do to remain empowered in this day and age. AKA, my tips for traveling smart:
- Before booking a trip and again before departing, check the State Department’s website for warnings. You can find information for each specific country and read additional ways to receive information when abroad. I just enrolled our trip information so our government knows where I will be and when.
- In this day and age, someone in the family should take the burden of thinking about everyone’s safety while traveling. This is the role my husband and I both share. We follow through with the following tips so our child or anyone else traveling with us doesn’t have to think about it or spend the trip in fear.
- Stay alert and aware. If something doesn’t look or feel right, move away from the situation and come back to it later. Your intuition is very useful and too often we try to explain away that bad gut feeling. Always think of worst case scenario and then make your decisions. For example, I do this every time we go into a movie theater. I position myself and my child for easy access to the exit and I take note of people as they fill the theater to see if anything looks “off.” At a recent movie, a man entered the theater carrying an usual bag and looked all around the theater before finally sitting down by himself near the screen. My alarm bells were going off, but quickly settled as as his wife and children join him, the woman taking her large purse from her husband. It was only a good husband, searching for his family and carrying his wife’s bag but it was odd for the initial context.
- Know where all of your exits are. When you enter a new space just take a quick mental note of how and where you can exit if need be. If you want to go the extra mile, know where you can take cover in case there is a dangerous threat.
- Don’t spend extra time in places like airports or bus stations (or anywhere listed on the State Department’s advisory page). Be extra vigilant in areas that anyone can access. We do this each time we come back through LAX. My husband grabs the luggage from the conveyor belt and I stand back with our bags and other family members and watch people coming in the doors.
I understand that some of these tips may feel a bit extreme but it’s the way that we have found to blend our love of travel and our insight into the threats that currently exist in this world. My hope is that reading this forces you to think about some difficult situations so that we all may continue to travel this wonderful world where good truly does conquer evil. After some consideration, talk to the other adults in your family and find what will realistically work for you. This article is not meant to be a comprehensive guide for what to do or what not to do in an active shooter or terrorist situation.
I’m curious to know your thoughts. I will be happy to share any other tips that are left in the comments!
*I am a licensed Psychologist in the state of California, with a Doctorate in Forensic Psychology. I have extensive training, research and clinical experience in the areas of criminal behavior, violence risk assessment and law enforcement psychology. Additionally, I was a police officer in the state of California for seven years and held the position of Terrorist Liaison Officer, receiving specialized training in domestic and foreign terrorism-related matters.