Avoid emotionally-driven overgeneralizations about travel

Dr. Karl Schmidt, Director of International Studies SDSU

Dr. Karl Schmidt, Director of International Studies SDSU

Dr. Karl Schmidt

I was pleased to see an article on international travel safety appear in last week’s issue of The Chart, but was troubled, however, by some of the unsubstantiated assertions made by an official of the Missouri Southern, who argued that some countries are safer than others.

If Costa Rica is “obviously” safe as was claimed, then why does the U.S. State Department Web site warn us that “in recent years, several Americans have been murdered in Costa Rica?” And if Vancouver is “no problem,” then why does the same State Department Web site caution us that U.S. vehicles “have been regularly targeted for opportunistic smash-and-grab thefts?” And if Paris is supposedly safe, then why is it that the State Department warns us that “gangs of thieves operate on the rail link from Charles de Gaulle Airport to downtown Paris by preying on jet-lagged, luggage-burdened tourists?”

Of the countries to which trips are planned, the only one mentioned as problematic is India. Why? Ostensibly, it’s because of proximity to Iraq. But my students will be in Hyderabad, which is actually 26 miles farther from Baghdad than Paris is. So, my students really won’t be “closer to the action” as purported in the article.

What does the State Department say about India? In recent years, there have been terrorist incidents in India, but the State Department informs us that no Americans were involved, and indeed, “no reliable pattern has emerged in these attacks; nor is there any indication that they are directed against Americans or other foreigners.” Compared to what the State Department says about the other countries in question, India seems appreciably safer.

From what I’ve just outlined, some may come to the conclusion that perhaps Americans should just stay home. The crux of this mode of thinking is the spurious perception that staying closer to home is inherently safer than going overseas. In the wake of Sept. 11, many Americans are convinced that the odds of being injured or killed by terrorists is higher overseas than here at home. The facts, however, don’t support this belief.

Americans aren’t at a higher risk when going overseas — even to India. Based on a recent State Department report, of the 195 Americans who died of non-natural causes overseas in 2002, only eight were killed by terrorists. That’s less than 5 percent of the total killed, for those interested in percentages. By contrast, in that same year, 19 Americans (nearly 10 percent) committed suicide overseas.

When we look at specific countries, our misperceptions about relative safety also seem to founder. Although only one American died in Canada last year (killed in a natural disaster), two died in Costa Rica (both suicides). Five Americans were killed in a train accident in France. 

By contrast, only two Americans died last year in India, and neither death was due to terrorism or murder. In light of these facts, is India really less safe than Costa Rica, Canada or France?

So, what’s the lesson here? Well, frankly, that we should avoid emotionally-driven and anecdotal overgeneralizations about the risks of both international travel and terrorism. Life itself is inherently risky, but as the National Safety Council points out, we Americans are statistically far more likely to suffer the ignominious end of choking to death on our own vomit than dying in an act of terrorism, whether at home or overseas.