Why we shouldn't let terrorism stop us from travelling

Terror and the era of hijacking

Many years ago, on my first overseas trip, I travelled within Italy on a domestic flight with Alitalia.  

It was the era when hijacking was used by various militant groups and individuals as a desperate tool to amplify their political messages across the world. The most famous hijacking was of Air France 139 in 1976 by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which concluded in Entebbe, Uganda, when Israeli commandos stormed the plane and freed the hostages. (Cue Hollywood movie.)

Throughout the '70s and '80s there were dozens of hijackings, not only by organisations committed to the liberation of Palestine, but by groups as disparate as the Japanese Red Army, Sikh secessionists and the US-based Black Liberation Army. 

It was not only various political "armies" who were emboldened by the publicity blitz hijackings earned – many individuals seized the chance to hijack planes for various reasons, from demanding ransoms to demanding that the Pope release the third secret of Fatima in one bizarre case.

Across two decades there were hijackings in Brazil, Prague, Fiji, Leningrad, Finland, California, Indonesia, Kuwait and other diverse international destinations, by no stretch related only to issues in the Middle East. One hijacking lasted 16 days but a good many did not result in loss of any passenger's life.

Italy at the time was experiencing its own threat from the Red Brigades, so boarding my flight resembled a military operation. I recall walking across the tarmac at Milan airport, guarded by soldiers with machineguns, and then being asked to step in front of my luggage and identify it before it could be loaded on the plane. The flight itself was uneventful, but the boarding was frightening (more for what a nervous soldier might do with his gun than any threat of hijacking).

I am mentioning this for a little perspective on what is going on currently, a seeming increase in the number of horrifying and sporadic terror attacks throughout the world. 

Many of these incidents are increasing the anxiety levels of travellers, who wonder which destinations are "safe" now that tourist favourite Paris (at the time of my writing this) is in lock-down. Each time there's an incident, travellers also may fret a little bit more about the safety of destinations and their chosen mode of transport, whether it be train, bus or plane. Hijacking is less likely in these days of tightened airport security, but we read of other possible horrors such as "underwear bombs". 

This is all apparently evidence of a "new age of terror", a description I've heard bandied around these past weeks. But is it really that new? In the late 1970s, on my first trip, it was pretty confronting to realise that the risk of our plane being hijacked was so great it necessitated the presence of the Italian army in force. 


This is not to downplay the nature of the threat itself, but we in the comfortable West still do not live in a world where we realistically have to be looking over our shoulder every minute worrying about a terrorist strike. We are not yet in a "war" as some propose, including those who want to take our liberties away. 

Yes, terrorist attacks do happen and maybe they will become more frequent, as the publicity these acts garner is proving an excellent tool of recruitment. But, to put it bluntly, there are myriad ways to die unexpectedly at home and on holiday, and one would be paralysed if each time we thought about travel we ran through all the possibilities in our minds. 

Realistically, how can the traveller be vigilant about terrorism? If one puts one's mind to it, there's threat in everything. And travel involves a huge amount of trust, starting with the skill of the taxi driver who takes you to the airport. To travel well is to trust other human beings. Most of us who put ourselves in the hands of strangers know this.

In any case, all the above is what I tell myself each time I'm about to get on a plane, and I've lived in Paris when my local Metro station was bombed and in New York when American Airlines Flight 11 flew directly over my head and into the World Trade Centre. 

Maybe Yemen isn't on my travel list this year, but Paris and Istanbul, which has recently had an attack in a tourist district, are.

Keep calm and carry on.