The Brancatelli File



November 7, 2002 -- Having grudgingly deigned to cover Election Day--no matter that CNN was caught unaware by the seismic power shift in its home state of Georgia or that no major news outlet was on the ground in Oklahoma to cover the upset in that governor's race--my colleagues in the mainstream media have returned to saturation coverage of today's truly important stories: the shoplifting conviction of Winona Ryder and Princess Diana's tattletale butler.

Such intense concentration on those life-altering events has, unfortunately, diverted the media from the smaller stories, like yesterday's U.S. State Department Worldwide Caution warning of renewed terrorism activity against Americans and U.S. interests at home and abroad. This new warning has been triggered by Virginia's plans to execute next week a Pakistani national convicted of the 1993 murders of two CIA employees.

The new travel warning, coupled with the horrifying pictures from last month's Bali bombing and the Chechen hostage-taking in a crowded Moscow theater, has once again shattered our belief that the world would ever be a safe and secure place for business travelers. Fourteen months after 9/11, and weeks or months away from a renewed armed conflict with Iraq, Americans are once again fearful of renewed terrorism against frequent travelers. And it's certainly not hard to understand our first reaction to those images and fears: Stay home, stay safe and venture no further than our figurative and literal backyards.

Unfortunately, staying at home does not make us safe. It makes the world a more dangerous place. Think about it: As we all learned on September 11, the goal of all terrorists is to inspire fear and make you change your way of life. If you stay home because of some real or imagined threat of terrorism, the terrorists win a crucial victory. Encouraged by your decision to change your plans, they will strike again, inevitably making the world less secure than it already seems to be.

Like it or not, coping with terrorism is a stark and simple proposition: Travel and expose yourself to a certain amount of danger. Or, stay at home and guarantee that the terrorists win the war.

It seems to me that only the first proposition makes any sense. That said, however, you must take physical and psychological precautions and make several mental adjustments whenever you travel. Many are admirably detailed in books such as Travel Can Be Murder ($19.95 from Applied Psychology). And here are some thoughts on how to make those crucial attitude adjustments.

Terrorists target big cities because that's where the most people live and where society's business, financial and cultural affairs are centered. But there is another reason why Irish terrorists targeted London, Algerian cadres have attacked Paris subways, Chechen guerrillas acted in Moscow and why al-Qaeda flew jets into the World Trade Center. Big cities are magnets for tourists, business travelers and the worldwide media.

Terrorists thrive on publicity. Activities in world-class cities generate more media coverage--and thus more terror--than atrocities perpetrated elsewhere. The presence of travelers in big cities is another bonus: These destinations depend on the revenue generated by visitors, so terrorists who scare away travelers make an economic as well as political statement.

Unless you are prepared to forgo your business in the world's metropolitan areas, your sole defense against terrorists who target big cities is increased vigilance. If possible, avoid public transportation (witness the repeated suicide/homicide bus bombings in Israel), stay away from local demonstrations, avoid crowds and crowded venues (about 1,000 people were in the Moscow theater) and move around during off-peak hours whenever possible.

Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are always on the "hot list" for travelers, but don't think the Holy Land is the only danger zone in the Middle East. The entire region remains embroiled in a Byzantine series of deadly skirmishes The State Department has issued a Public Announcement covering all of the Middle East and North Africa. You must accept that visiting any Middle Eastern destination carries some risk. And this danger will rise precipitously should Allied forces attack Iraq.

In Egypt, for example, an internecine dispute between the Egyptian government and Islamic militants led to the tourist massacre at Luxor in 1997. There have been no similar atrocities since then, but the situation remains volatile. Morocco remains entangled in a long-running dispute over the independence of Western Sahara. Internal terrorism has made Algeria so dangerous that the U.S. Department of State warns travelers to "limit use of regularly scheduled commercial flights" and arrange to be "met and accompanied by pre-arranged local contacts upon arrival and departure at airports." And the kidnapping of tourists and business travelers made Yemen a dangerous place to visit long before the USS Cole incident two years ago and recent al-Qaeda activity.

The U.S. media has many collective blind spots--and that's not good news for business travelers. Just because you haven't heard of trouble somewhere doesn't mean the destination is safe. It may only mean that the American media has chosen to ignore problems there.

This media blindness is especially dangerous for travelers headed to Latin America. In Costa Rica, for example, two tourists endured a ten-week-long kidnapping in 1996 and few Americans ever heard the news. The U.S. government says no area of Guatemala is safe after dark, but this is not reported. U.S. media outlets have been largely silent on the continued dangers of traveling in Peru and Colombia. Worse, American media outlets ignore Africa entirely. Dangerous local issues are never covered. Devastating regional conflicts like the convoluted conflagration devouring Congo and much of Central Africa also go unreported. Recent fighting in once-peaceful places such as Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) isn't reported while the media fawns over the latest movie star or celebrity trial.

Even so-called "fringe" areas of Europe and Asia are not immune to the news blackout. Two examples: Corsica, the French island north of Italian Sardinia. Corsica is a cauldron of violent unrest, but its troubles elicit little attention in the American media. And a rebellion against the Malaysian government in Sabah State has cost hundreds of lives, but it receives no coverage in the United States.

Hectoring the major U.S. media outlets to provide better coverage of the worldwide scene won't help. Trust me, I know. I'm supposedly a respected publication consultant and many of my own clients have barred me from discussing their international inadequacies.

So how do you plug the disturbing information gap? Start by reading the State Department's Consular Information Sheets. The government produces these reports for every destination in the world and augments them with warnings and alerts as local conditions warrant. You can even have these surveys delivered automatically to your E-mail address.

Unfortunately, State Department reports are not completely objective. They tend to exaggerate the difficulties in nations unfriendly to us and gloss over the problems of our allies. For balance, consult the travel-information services offered by the governments of Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia.

You can also do worse than checking in with Country Watch, an independent Web site that offers backgrounders and breaking news for more than 190 nations. And do visit Hot Spots and arrange to receive its free daily E-mail updates on political and military disruptions around the world.

Terrorism cannot be ignored, but don't let it divert your attention from another vitally important issue: Crime against travelers. As the gap between the financial haves and have-nots grow, well-do-to visitors, and especially business travelers, are tempting targets for burglary, robbery and kidnapping-for-cash schemes. To be safe, assume nothing when you travel. Take the same precautions against crime as you do at home. In fact, be even more vigilant on the road than at home because you, not the criminal, are the person on unfamiliar territory.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.