U.S. Teenager in Baghdad – A Security Reality Check

The world is not as safe a place as it was 5 years ago, but it is also not a very dangerous place, all things considered.  And travel to remote places poses few actual risks.  Yes, on an actuarial basis, you are FAR more likely to be beheaded by zealots in Baghdad than in Brooklyn, but you are probably just as likely to be mugged in Brooklyn (or Beloit or Boulder), or have your car stolen, or get hit by a drunk driver, or have someone break into your home to steal your valuables, or suffer any of the other ills of modern society.  Read on.

How to start? How about with a disclaimer?  (This entry will be almost 1/2 disclaimers.)  I discourage any teenager from traveling internationally without parental permission.  Venturing into a known hostile environment without any knowledge of the local language and without regard to conditions there is just plain stupid, for anyone of any age.  That said, I would like to use the recent trip of 16-year old Farris Hassan to Baghdad as the basis for a reality check concerning personal security abroad.  In my eyes, the media has made the story into one of miraculous survival.  I have watched reports from several broadcasters; all have stressed how very dangerous the trip was.  One even said it was remarkable that young Hassan survived, given that 40 Westerners have been kidnapped there in the past 3 years, and 10 have been killed.

Let’s get real.  Stating again that it was wrong for Hassan to travel to Iraq alone and without permission, and that Baghdad is the center of a war zone, I can’t see how it was really all that exceptionally dangerous.  In the past 3 years (rounded down to 1,000 days to simplify the math), 40 Westerners have been kidnapped, and 10 killed.  That’s about 3 violent deaths per year that happened because the victims were targets of political/military hostility.  That’s about 1 per 100 days.  Given the large number of Westerners in Baghdad, the odds that this young man would suffer from a politically-motivated violent attack were minimal, particularly if he is as intelligent as he is reputed to be. 

OK, so there are bombs going off almost daily.  I grant that and do not ignore it.  But Hassan is home without injury because that’s what happens to almost all travelers.  The story was not one of survival, but of the rash impulses of youth.

While I was in high school, one of my running buddies became homesick for the Chicago neighborhood and friends he had recently left.  At age 16, without telling his parents, he took a plane from Phoenix to Chicago.  We all thought it was cool and crazy.  His parents thought it was crazy but not cool.  When I first headed off to the Middle East, during the Iran-Iraq War, with my wife and children in tow, my extended family feared for my safety.  When I was sent to Jerusalem during the Palestinian intifada and given the duty of reporting on West Bank political affairs, my extended family again feared.  Here’s my review and summary of all the foreign travels:

It is probably slightly more dangerous to travel to political hotspots than it is to travel to “safe” tourist sites.  It might be more dangerous to travel to the “safe” tourist sites than to stay home, depending on where your home is.  But it is almost always more interesting to GO THERE and SEE IT and carry the memory with you than it is to stay home because of security concerns.

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