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Michael Moszczynski's Weblog
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada advises against all travel 08.XI.2008 15:26
I'm currently in the city of Tripoli, for which the Government of Canada has issued its most serious possible travel warning - 'there is an extreme risk to personal safety, and Canadians should not travel at this time.' I think it goes without saying that this warning is ridiculous - true, the situation is mildly tense, and a bomb goes off once every few months; that might be a reason to rethink your travel plans for some, but it is far from an 'extreme risk.' The real problem, however, is that they have assigned this city the highest available level of warning, meaning that there is no place of which I should be more wary than the one I'm currently in. What's happening, of course, is that the government isn't protecting me, but itself - if I do caught in a warzone, getting me out would be a considerable expense and a potential public relations nightmare, so their travel advisories have nothing to do with the odds of something happening and everything to do with what they're willing to do to help. A travel warning isn't a measure of your chances of dying; it's a measurement of the chances of your death, should it occur here, making the international news.

Right now, there are a few places I would genuinely be afraid to go: these include all of Iraq outside Kurdistan and the majority of Afghanistan, as well as such obvious cases as the current warzone in the Democratic Republic of Congo; these appropriately receive travel warnings from the Canadian government. However, it can't be useful to conflate the current situation in Tripoli to the current one in Kivu; one carries an immediate and constant risk of personal danger, and one carries an extremely sporadic one. Moreover, the travel warnings completely ignore another kind of danger - that faced in places like Rio de Janeiro or Johannesburg, where the Economist advises to carry enough cash to satisfy a thief, so he doesn't take your life as compensation for not receiving money. It's obvious why these aren't warnings - they happen frequently enough not to make the news, and it costs nothing to help you if they happen to you, largely because there's nothing they can do to help.

I can never seem to explain the statistics of terror attacks to people. They're the same as those of plane crashes: essentially negligible. Let's say that in Tripoli, a bombing happens every month, and you plan to be there for a day. Let's say, moreover, that each terror attack kills an average of 10 people. Therefore: your chances of being in Tripoli on the same day as the terror attack are 1 in 30, or 3%. There are around 500,000 people in Tripoli, of whom 10 will die in that terror attack. Therefore, your chances of dying in a terrorist attack are about 1 in 1,500,000, or 0.0000667%. Your chances of dying in an automobile accident are much, much higher. And these terrorist statistics are made up and inflated; your chances are really way better than this. The probability calculus of Johannesburg muggings is very different. Most of all, they are non-random: you will look like a tourist and therefore be directly targeted, whereas Tripoli's factional nature means that your odds improve by being a tourist. Muggers are volatile, and it costs them little to kill you, so once you're in a mugging, you probably have a 1 in 1,000 chance or so of being killed. The chances of being killed are probably better, though on a similar order, as those of dying in a terrorist attack - those of being injured (incl. robbery) in a mugging are much worse though. Johannesburg is way more dangerous than Tripoli; however, it merits no travel warning at all.

The reason we're so afraid of attacks and plane crashes is statistical. We hear only about those car crashes that affect us directly (ie if our friend dies in one), or are particularly gruesome - an interesting case is those caused by police chases, which make the news and are therefore extremely dangerous. For terror attacks, however, we hear about every fatality, precisely because they're so sensational - so in our minds there is a frequent amount of terror attacks and an infrequent amount of car crashes; this holds even if we know the statistics, simply because we're human. Planes are way less dangerous than cars, but because they fail so spectacularly, and because they don't provide an illusion of control the way driving a car does ('only bad drivers get into those accident; I would have avoided it!'), they inspire far more fear.

It's human nature to think this way; however, if the government's travel warnings have any real function, it's to separate the media noise from the signal of real danger; however they don't because for them the danger is the media. If I get killed in a carbomb in the next few hours, you'll probably read about it in the Globe and Mail; if I get hit by a car in Cairo (no travel warning), you won't. Travel warnings aren't there to keep travellers safe; they're to keep travellers in 'completely danger-free' zone likes Paris feeling safe, by creating the feeling that the government is doing something somewhere, and if there were something wrong they'd know about it. It's a placebo effect on the one hand, and a disclaimer on the other. To separate the real warnings from the meaningless ones, you need so much external information that you may as well not have had the travel warning at all. And, while the uselessness of government bureaucracy is nothing new, the sad thing is that there are genuine threats that they know about that I, as a traveller, don't. If a small town near Beirut became a pitched battle between two factions (one might), the danger of crossfire would become very large, but it might not make the news - this is the kind of thing I need the government to tell me about. The same goes for high rates of violent crime, especially those targetting tourists. The current system of travel advisories isn't just wrong or stupid; it's dangerous and irresponsible.

Tripoli, Lebanon Lb

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