The Sanctity of the American Tourist

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” — Lao Tzu

American tourist mocks native traditions.

People talk about the Parisian flaneur, but the American traveler of the 1990s was the ultimate embodiment of the strolling voyeur.  One such fortunate could walk untouched into the globe’s darkest depths (or North Africa, at least), casually observe what was going on, and return to Philadelphia unmolested.  Though it seems an impossible dream to imagine anyone free to go anywhere, yours, truly can say that he considered it among his rights as an American.  And some claim that you still can, like the bold folks at Young Pioneer Tours USA, who strive to ‘take you safely and cheaply to any place on the planet your mother would rather you stay away from.’

The State Department disagrees, however, listing travel warnings for 34 countries, including most of the Middle East, much of North and Central Africa, the Philippines, and Mexico and Honduras over here in our own hemisphere.  Mexico, even beyond the now-expected cartel violence along the border, has a swine flu epidemic which is currently described as a Stage 5 Pandemic.

And, at least in this case, popular thinking supports the government’s position, or it did in 2006, anyway, when 76% of Americans believed the world was more dangerous than at any point in their lifetime (and it is difficult to imagine that messy conclusions in Iraq and Afghanistan, violence along the Pakistani-Indian border, cartel atrocities along the border with Mexico, the Arab Spring, and prolonged violence in Syria would have created any new optimists).

More recent, already forgotten presidential candidates have campaigned on such a message of fear:  It is “wishful thinking that the world is becoming a safer place. The opposite is true. Consider simply the jihadists, a near-nuclear Iran, a turbulent Middle East, an unstable Pakistan, a delusional North Korea, an assertive Russia, and an emerging global power called China. No, the world is not becoming safer.”

American Tourists  The Awesome American Tourist I AmAgree or disagree, Romney’s list of hypothetically dangerous places amazingly does not include anywhere in South or Central America, which boasts the 15 most dangerous cities in the world by percentage of annual homicides (though the study admits, viable data was not available from the Middle East).  Heartening to know that we continue to display an independent streak here in the New World.  Our preference of death to incarceration might be part of what separates us from the Russians and Chinese—we deem it inhumane to send convicts to places like Siberia or to work on the Grand Canal, and hope instead that the criminals gun each other down and without too many of the rest of us being hit in the crossfire.

The fear-mongers have their critics, though: Michael Lind in Salon argued emphatically that the world is a safer place than it used to be, and claims that “in the seven years following 2001 the average number of deaths from international terrorism was 582.”  It is a compelling argument, and fits more in with yours, truly’s basic idea that the world spins along approximately as violently as always (matters have become unusually terminal for the lesser animals, however).

Despite an allegiance to cyclical reasoning, however, it is pertinent to point out that in our nation’s recent history there have been some observable trends regarding violent crime (defined as murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault), with such offenses lowest from the 1940s to the 1960s, and comparably high in the 20s and 30s, and from the mid 60s through the 90s, from which time, violent crime has been on the wane.  And there is reason to disagree with Lind, particularly with his categorization of the US as ‘a country of descendants of voluntary immigrants, with the exception of descendants of native Americans, African slaves and some Mexican families in the Southwest,’ a definition that excludes indentured servitude totally from its reasoning, and includes religious persecution, famine, and debt under the same voluntary category of immigrants as the First Families of Virginia.

Quibbles with Lind’s definition aside, others have argued the same general grounds.  Which leads yours, truly to the conclusion that the world may not be the issue, and shares as evidence two tragic anecdotes from his respective alma maters that might seem to contradict such a position…

A student from Kenyon College was killed in Egypt recently.  And several years ago, a student slated to attend St. Paul’s School for Boys was eaten by hyenas.

Violence has ever been among us, visited upon those compelled to seek it out (think Bowles’ Professor), the unsuspecting, like the soon-to-be SP student on safari with his mother, and those who knowingly placed themselves in a somewhat compromised situation, albeit for arguably sound and even inspired reasons, like the Kenyon student studying Arabic, but it is clear that travel remains one of our safest hobbies, when one considers the violence we wreak here in the US (home to 5 of those aforementioned 50 deadliest cities: New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Oakland).

And then one considers other morbid tallies: nearly 120,000 annual accidental deaths, more than 38,000 suicides, more than 32,000 gun deaths (with most likely in one of the above categories), and… 925 civilian Americans dead last year of non-natural causes, with 206 of those deaths occurring in Mexico, and one might reasonably make the case that leaving represents the best chance any of us has got.