After the recent protests in Paris and the shooting Tuesday night in Strasbourg, the instinct of some of our American friends is to scratch France off their travel list. One friend canceled a planned trip to Paris, and another said, “Strasbourg was on my list of places to travel, but now, maybe not.”
We try to talk sense into them, but we seldom succeed. Our British and French friends who have run gites (bed-and-breakfast places) in France say that Americans are always the first ones to cancel when something goes wrong in this part of the world.
And, let’s face it, something inevitably goes wrong. The world is full of discontent and instability, and threats of violence are everywhere. Shit happens.
But how likely is it that those threats will affect us personally? And how good are we at assessing the relative risks we face in traveling the world? Based on my experience, not very good.
Take the Paris protests as an example. If you want to avoid the Paris protests, here’s what you do: Stay away from the right bank areas around the Champs Elysees and the Opera district on Saturdays. That’s it. All of the protests are on the right bank of the Seine, and always on Saturdays, because many of the protesters come in from the rural areas and the suburbs, and they all have to go back to work on Mondays.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that the protests focus on the most recognizable tourist destinations in the world? The police and the protesters are engaged in this high-stakes game of street theater, so that the images of burning cars and barricades and tear gas around the Arc de Triomphe can waft around the world. France has problems, just like a lot of places, and it’s having trouble sorting those problems out.
But Paris is still the most beautiful city in the world, and in general one of the safest. And the Louvre reopens every Monday. So don’t cancel your trip to France. Just go visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery in eastern Paris on Saturday. Or go to Versailles. Or take a trip up to Normandy. Or head out to the Champagne region for the weekend. And don’t park your car on the Champs Elysees. (Better yet, don’t have a car. You don’t want to drive in Paris, ever.)
The recent attack, in Strasbourg, was very personal to us. We had just visited there for the first time, and we spent three days in the thrall of the old city’s charm and beauty, and the grand celebration it throws at Christmas. We spent that time with a good friend who lives there, whose whereabouts and well-being we were unable to confirm for three hours after the shooting – maybe more upsetting to us than to her, since she knew she was fine. And we had walked with her across Place Kléber at about the same time in the evening, 8 p.m., as the shootings took place a few days later.
So it was easy to imagine being in the same place at the same time as the shooter. And it’s easy for us to picture more clearly what violence and carnage and terror would look like at that time and in that place, full of families and young children, all in a festive mood. Our familiarity made it much more upsetting to us.
So how much sense does it make for us to avoid Strasbourg in the future? None, actually. We’d go back tomorrow.
First, France is a relatively peaceful country, particularly when compared with some of the more violent places in the world – such as the United States. Second, there is a substantially greater security presence anywhere crowds gather in France than one ever sees in the United States, short of a presidential visit.
Soldiers with automatic weapons patrol the expansive Christmas market in Strasbourg, just as they patrolled October’s Saint-Simone Festival in tiny Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, our home. But the attack in Strasbourg underscores that in a free society, you are never completely safe, no matter where and when you are. We can tell you from personal experience that Strasbourg was crawling with security, including bag checks at every entrance across the river into the old town center. And yet, someone with a gun got through. One man with one gun was less noticeable, perhaps, than the 22 large, heavy bags that the Las Vegas shooter brought up to his room, with the help of the hotel staff, in the week before that shooting.
We are equal parts frustrated and amused when our American friends ponder canceling trips because it’s unsafe to travel here. Last year, almost 40,000 people died by gunfire in the United States, while in France fewer than 1,000 did. There are more people in the U.S., you say. True. So let’s look at the rate.
If you separate out just the homicides (and remove the suicides), the difference is even more stark. The U.S. has 2.97 gun homicides a year per 100,000 in population, versus France, which has .06 homicides a year by gun per 100,000 population.
Put another way: You are 50 times more likely to be shot to death in the United States than you are in France. That’s a big difference.
One of the things Paula and I notice now that we are in Europe – where the terrorism lives – is how we normalized everyday violence when we lived in the United States, and how horrible it looks now. On the day our friend in New Orleans canceled her trip to Paris because of the tear gas and graffiti on the Champs Elysees, a woman in New Orleans was pulled from her car by a carjacker, thrown to the street, run over and killed. That’s another day of violence in New Orleans, which has perfected the term “routine shooting.”
And as Americans cancel their hotel reservations in Paris and strike their plans to visit the Christmas market in Strasbourg, places like Orlando and Las Vegas, sites of two of the worst mass shootings in American history, continue to do booming business. And schools across America continue to conduct Active Shooter drills.
A big part of this American proclivity to overreact to foreign violence is unfamiliarity. As a nation, Americans are not as well-traveled as are many other people around the world. It is striking how many of our neighbors in Europe have visited not only the United States, but have traveled the world. Most speak two languages; many, three or more.
But Americans as a group tend to stay home. When we don’t know a place, we already have some anxiety about going there. So when there’s an act of violence, it’s difficult for us to contextualize that violence, and make a realistic estimate of our risk, particularly in a foreign country. Our cover-your-ass State Department doesn’t help much, with its generalized belief that the whole world is somehow dangerous, and people should just stay home, with their own kind.
Another factor is that attacks in Europe are often categorized as “terror” attacks, while Americans are strangely resistant to categorizing their mass shootings as acts of terror. But clearly, they are. The grieving family members of the 58 people killed in Las Vegas don’t really care whether or not the man who shot their loved ones was a Muslim extremist who hated America.
At least once or twice a month, Paula and I travel to Paris. It’s a zippy one-hour train ride into the heart of the city, where we can spend the day walking, shopping, eating, exploring. I think often about the number of terrorist attacks that have occurred in Paris over the years, including the most recent and most violent one, on 13 November, 2015. That was when 130 people died, most of them in the Bataclan music venue.
As we walk the streets of Paris, we know exactly where all of the attacks occurred in 2015. And the truth is that the odds of ending up in the line of fire on that horrific night, or on any other night, in a sprawling city of 8 million people, are really low, a reverse lottery of the most horrible kind. It doesn’t mean it can’t happen, and for hundreds of people that warm Friday evening in Paris, it did. It just means that you can’t really live a full life in fear that it’s going to happen to you. Such a practice would be not only irrational, but utterly paralyzing.
Three people died in Strasbourg. Such multiple-fatality shooting events are exceedingly rare in France. By comparison, the United States has had 262 shootings so far in 2018 in which four or more people died. And it continues to lead the world in mass shootings.
Usually, our American friends who refuse to be cowed by these isolated cataclysms of violence have already traveled the world widely. They have context in which to assess their risks. And because they have that experience, they can confidently say they will not be dissuaded by the violence in the world.
And neither will we. So, my advice when you travel, whether in the United States or abroad, is that you should be aware of your surroundings. Be mindful of the people around you, and what they are doing. Keep your wallet in your front pocket. Wear your purse across your body. In a restaurant or at a venue, be aware of where the exits are, where the kitchen is, and take a moment to think what you would do if the unthinkable should occur. It’s unlikely, but not impossible. Shit happens.
But in the name of all that is sacred, please don’t let the forces of darkness keep you from traveling. Because the truth is that the more you journey, the more you realize how much beauty there is in the world. Compassion is abundant and cruelty is rare. Love trumps hate. On balance, the forces of light are so much greater, and so much stronger, than those of darkness. And the more people there are in the world who realize that, the better chance this world has to stay away from the brink.
So keep those reservations. Bon voyage. See you in Paris.