A couple of passengers departing Caracas, Venezuela for Paris, France checked 31 articles of luggage on the flight, all of which were tagged under false names. Upon investigation, authorities discovered that the bags were filled with 2,866 pounds of pure cocaine. Suspicions were apparently only raised when the passengers who checked the bags didn’t actually board the plane. The flight date was on 9/11 no less, a date we all know for extra precautions at airports, at least in the United States. The unaccompanied bags of cocaine were eventually detained at the Charles De Gaulle airport.Several people have been arrested in France regarding the incident — three are Italian and three are British. Venezuelan authorities have arrested three officers of the National Guard and have said that they expect more arrests to come. According to Minister Miguel Rodriguez, Venezuelan authorities are also suspicious of the airline workers involved in this flight. While we don’t have any further details regarding just how this much cocaine wound up on this plane, it’s pretty clear that with National Guard members and possibly airline workers aiding in the transport of the drugs, a massive coverup and/or coercion may have been present. Most drug rings wouldn’t risk this much cocaine on a single flight unless they felt success was inevitable, a presumption that is contingent on corruption.
The events of September 11, 2001, left an indelible mark on the country, and indeed the world. Today, New York will commemorate the 11th anniversary of 9/11 with a series of ceremonies and memorial services. It will also celebrate the progress underway on the new World Trade Center towers, which serve as a reminder of America’s ability to overcome adversity. The most prominent tower, called WTC1, was photographed yesterday in all of its red-white-and-blue glory by Flickr user Gus NYC. When completed, WTC1 will be the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
A U.S. judge has ruled AMR Corp’s American Airlines and United Continental Holdings, Inc. must face trial over claims of negligence relating to the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center in 2001.
Almost eleven years ago, 19 terrorists from the Islamist militant group al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger jets, including American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175, which were intentionally crashed into New York’s Twin Towers, American Airlines Flight 77, which was flown into the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93, which was meant to crash into the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., but was unsuccessful. Almost 3,000 people were killed.
According to NBC News, in July 2001 World Trade Center Properties, LLC (WTCP) purchased 99-year leases to four World Trade Center buildings from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Inc. for $2.805 billion. In a lawsuit against United Airlines and American Airlines, WTCP is claiming, “the terrorists could not have boarded and hijacked the aircraft and flown them into the twin towers” if it hadn’t been for the airlines’ negligence, according to a New York court filing.
While WTCP wants $8.4 billion to cover damages, Judge Alvin Hellerstein has limited the amount to the $2.805 billion paid for the leases. In their defense, the airlines say they should not go to trial because WTCP has recovered $4.091 billion from insurance companies. However, Judge Hellerstein has said that at this time he cannot reasonably determine the insurance money covered the damages.
Last week, the global intelligence company Stratfor finished a series about terrorism. Their final article, “Keeping Terrorism in Perspective” is especially important for travelers. The entire series is fascinating and enlightening and I recommend it highly.
In a nutshell, the analysts at Stratfor say terrorism is not going to go away and can never be entirely defeated. No government, even the most authoritarian, can keep its people and property entirely safe. Also, public and official reaction can often be more harmful than the attack itself.
To take an example from history, at the turn of the last century in Barcelona there was a wave of anarchist bombings. While most of the bombs were small and did little damage, they caused a general panic. Sidewalk urinals became popular targets. It was a public place where a man could be alone for a few moments to plant a bomb. After several explosions in urinals, the city got rid of them. The anarchists moved on to other targets and the entire male population became burdened with a major inconvenience.
A modern example of how terrorism can have an effect far beyond its ability to do damage is the case of shoe bomber Richard Reid. After Reid failed to ignite his shoe bomb on a flight, airport security responded by forcing everyone to take off their shoes. The authors of “Superfreakonomics” did some interesting math on this, “Let’s say it takes an average of one minute to remove and replace your shoes in the airport security line. In the United States alone, this procedure happens roughly 560 million times per year. . .Five hundred and sixty million minutes equals more than 1,065 years — which, divided by 77.8 years (the average U.S. life expectancy at birth), yields a total of nearly 14 person-lives. So even though Richard Reid failed to kill a single person, he levied a tax that is the time equivalent of 14 lives per year.”Terrorism is used by groups that are not powerful enough to attain their goals politically or militarily. While terrorist attacks can be deadly, they don’t pose a fatal threat to states or economies except by consent. Terrorists rely on public reaction to increase their effectiveness. Media hype, Internet rumors and finger-pointing politicians accusing their opponents of being “soft on terrorism” all act as, what Stratfor terms, “terror magnifiers.” As Stratfor says, “A target population responding to a terrorist attack with panic and hysteria allows the perpetrators to obtain a maximum return on their physical effort.”
In a very real way, a panicky public becomes the terrorists’ ally. Stratfor points to the massive economic upheaval and paranoia after 9/11 as a bad public reaction that increased the terrorists’ success. Less successful were the London bombings of 2005, which saw Londoners back on public transport and going to work the next day. This minimized the economic damage the terrorists had hoped to achieve.
So, will ignoring terror attacks make the terrorists go away? Sadly no, but it will lessen the damage they do. Of course travelers should be cautious and practice situational awareness. Beyond that they shouldn’t change their behavior at all, since that plays into the terrorists’ hands.
To use a personal example, the recent terrorist attack on tourists in Ethiopia will not stop my plans to return there this year. With the increased security in Ethiopia in the wake of the attacks, Ethiopia is probably safer than when I was there in 2011, and to change my plans would only give the terrorists what they want — undercutting the nation’s tourist economy and dividing people with fear.
Terrorist attacks are like other types of violent crime in that they can happen anywhere. I’ll be careful when I’m in Ethiopia just like I was the last two times, but no more careful than I am anywhere else. I’m more nervous walking the streets of London on a Saturday night than traveling in Ethiopia. I’ve had my life threatened in London. That’s never happened in Ethiopia.
There are already experts taking active steps to fight terrorism. Western governments have foiled numerous plots and the Navy Seals tagged Bin Laden. You can help them by chilling out and enjoy your vacation. Doing otherwise only encourages our enemies.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
One evening in Amsterdam, about three years ago, a pan-European group of friends and acquaintances asked me the question that every New Yorker who’s gone abroad in the last decade half-expects, half-dreads to hear: Where were you on September 11, 2001?
I was lying in bed, I told them, when I heard on NPR there’d been an explosion at the towers. I sat up and looked out the window of my Lower East Side apartment-the radio was right, I could see smoke rising in the distance. I got dressed, picked up my camera and big zoom lens, and shot two rolls of film from my rooftop. Then I walked to work in midtown Manhattan, pausing on Fifth Avenue to watch the towers collapse into dust. Clearly, something awful was going on, but I was safe, as was my girlfriend (now my wife). The terrorist attack had started and ended, and that was that.
My story paled in comparison to the dramatic and affecting narrative of the other New Yorker in our group, Nina. A journalist too, she’d spent the days and weeks after the attacks covering the story for the New York Times, and the experience had deeply affected her: the deaths, the tragedy, the uncertainty, the all-consuming emotionality of the aftermath. Every New Yorker, she said, was terrified by what had happened, and unsettled about what was to come: the anthrax scares, the wars. We were traumatized, all 8 million of us.
Perhaps insensitively, I quibbled. I’d never been scared, I said. The attacks hadn’t affected me directly, or even affected anyone I knew. In the days after, I’d had to show police my driver’s license to get through barricades and to my below–Houston Street apartment-not much of an inconvenience. I went to work, I came home, I watched the news and wrote e-mails and cooked dinner and wondered about what might happen next. Life was not all that different, I insisted.
Nina stared at me as if I were Osama bin Laden himself.I backed off. This was not a fight I wanted to have-especially since hers was the better story. And, obviously, I didn’t want to deny the horror of that day or minimize its repercussions. For millions of people, in New York and around the world, 9/11 changed everything miserably and irrevocably. But not for me. The towers had stood barely a mile from my house, but the terrorized world felt light years away. I was the guy for whom nothing changed.
Well, maybe not precisely nothing. Because in the months and years after September 11, I began to travel more and more. That December, I went snowboarding in Switzerland. A few months later, Vietnam. The next May, Mexico-and the May after that, too. At the end of 2004, I quit my job to spend several months in Southeast Asia, where I got lucky: I sold some stories to the New York Times travel section. Suddenly, it seemed like maybe travel could become a full-time way of life for me. By the summer of 2005, it was.
Was this all because of 9/11? Indirectly, maybe. If 9/11 hadn’t happened, maybe Bush wouldn’t have been reelected, and maybe I wouldn’t have had that feeling, in November of 2004, that maybe I should get out of the country for a bit. Or it all could have unfolded in exactly the same way.
What seems strange as I look back at this is that my travel life intensified over a decade in which travel itself became infinitely more complicated, difficult, and potentially dangerous. Ten years ago, there was no Transportation Security Administration-no shoe removal, no eBay auctions of confiscated pocket knives, no wrangling over bottled breast milk. In 2001, the airlines had not yet embarked on their attempts to squeeze passengers, both literally and figuratively. Gas cost well under $2 a gallon.
And, perhaps most important, no one was yet worried about being an American overseas. At worst, back then, you could appear to be a clueless American, out of touch with European culture, ignorant of Middle Eastern dining customs, primed for pickpocketing. But quite quickly after the attacks, travelers were asking themselves: Is it safe for us there? Will we be kidnapped? Or relentlessly criticized?
In other words, if you were going to pick a time in the last century to become a serious traveler, you probably would not choose the years 2001–2011. But while I watched fellow travelers and the media fret and complain about worsening post-9/11 conditions, I never quite experienced them myself: no canceled flights, no strip searches at JFK, no violence narrowly averted on the streets of Tangier, no awkward dinner-party conversations in Paris (at least, the awkwardness had nothing to do with 9/11). Just as on September 11, I felt like I was living in a different world from everyone else, one where I could see and understand the difficulties but through which I was gliding, untouched, like a Boeing 767 through a cloudless blue September sky.
Most likely, it helps to be me: a short, thin, unassuming, generally clean-cut white man with a Germanic (if Jewish) surname, an American passport, functioning credit cards, and enough money in the bank for a tank of gas (if not always two tanks of gas). This is not a profile that attracts unwanted attention.
But at the same time, the world I have experienced in the past ten years-while surely riven by the conflicts and geopolitical shifts unspooling from 9/11-is not hugely different from the one I saw in the years prior, from 1996 (when I moved to Vietnam for a year) to 2001 (when, having been laid off, I took my first cross-country road trip). Okay, there’s less legroom, but where I stow my feet is my least concern when I’m traveling.
No, what’s always been more important to me is the people I’ve met along the way. Almost wherever I’ve gone, I’ve encountered folks who’ve opened up to me, shown me incredible generosity, and never once made me feel like a representative of a politically suspect nation. Then as now, people would rather talk about what to eat for dinner, show off photos of kids and grandkids, and walk around their villages, towns, and cities to see what’s going on.
And they like to tell stories. In Greece recently, I met an old man named Little Jim who sketched for me his life-born on the island of Samos, he worked most of his life in Australia-and nearly cried as he talked about how his mother, nearing the age of 100, had returned to her native village to die. His tale reminded me somehow of that of Miss Luc, a woman I knew in Ho Chi Minh City who wound up homeless and near-crazy at the end of the Vietnam War, forced to sell lottery tickets in the streets with her infant daughter strapped to her back.
Miss Luc’s and Little Jim’s stories had elements of sadness, but they weren’t depressing or tragic-nothing so neat. They were lives, and for a brief moment I was a part of them. I had no illusions, though; this was temporary, I was not special, and when I moved on from Saigon and Samos I would leave no mark. All I was was an observer, a sympathetic interlocutor passing through town-gliding once again.
But if that’s what I’m to be, a watcher unaffected by events, then it’s my goal to be the best witness I can be, to listen and remember and follow the tales as they’re told and retold, whether they take place in far-off lands or just across town. And in the same way, we travelers have a responsibility to, when asked, tell our own stories, whether upbeat or calamitous. It’s through such encounters that human beings form a picture of the world, and come to understand, if imperfectly, the events that change it.
So next time I’m asked (probably any second now), I’ll tell without hesitation my weird, emotionless tale of 9/11, and it will filter into the brain of some Frenchman, Kenyan, or Palestinian and, alongside stories like Nina’s, become part of a grander, more complete, and, I hope, more comforting narrative, one in which the terrorist attacks of a decade ago are no longer seen as a chasm between Then and Now but as a Rashomonic link from the past to, well, wherever we happen to be today.