The headlines filling the news over the past few months have been increasingly grim as recent acts of terrorism have gripped the world in fear. Following the November 13 attacks in Paris in which 130 people were killed by mass shootings and suicide bombings, terrorism has received even greater attention from news outlets. Disturbing scenes of emergency response units, police, shaken bystanders and body bags fill television and computer screens alongside emotional memorial services, interviews with survivors and impassioned speeches by world leaders.
Many of these recent terrorist attacks, including the bombings in Beirut and November attack in Paris, have been conducted by ISIS, a group of jihadist extremist militants led by Sunni Arabs from Iraq and Syria. The group began in Iraq in 2004. As Syria’s Civil War continues to wage on, ISIS has gained followers and power. In 2015 ISIS has claimed the lives of more than 1,000 civilians around the world, and some news outlets are calling 2015 the year of terror.
There’s no denying that the world feels like a really scary place right now, and with such heartbreaking and disturbing recent events it can feel like it’s best to forgo any dreams of traveling, let alone living, abroad and just stay home. But should you let terrorism keep you from studying abroad? Absolutely not!
Understanding Your Fears vs. Reality
Terrorism, as defined by the FBI, “is the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
The aims of such acts are to induce fear, not only among governments, but also among civilians living in relatively peaceful societies.
“Terrorism is a form of psychological warfare against a society,” wrote Dov Waxman, professor of political science, international affairs, and Israel studies at Northeastern University, in his scholarly research on the affects of terrorism.
“It is designed to strike fear into the heart of the targeted society, and it generally succeeds in doing so... Since people tend to overestimate their chances of being a victim to terrorism, the fear of terrorism is widespread in a society.”
While terrorism has increased -- the U.S. State Department found an increase of 35 percent in terrorism in 2014 alone -- the odds of dying in a terrorist attack remain very low, for both citizens in the United States as well as students who participate in sanctioned study abroad programs overseas in countries, such as France, that are not experiencing widespread conflict. In other words, studying abroad does not automatically increase your risk.
“Peoples’ fear of terrorism is both rational and irrational; rational in that there is an ever-present threat of a terrorist attack being repeated, but irrational in the probability assigned to that potential event,” Added Dov.
In fact, in the vast majority of places on earth, you are more likely to die from being struck by lightning or being crushed to death by furniture than you are for terrorism. And the leading cause of death for Americans abroad is not terrorism or murder, but car crashes (also, not surprisingly, one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. as well).
While it may be scary to think about studying abroad due to so many horrific events, it is important to remember that this fear is much greater than the chances of being a victim of a terror attack while overseas.
The Role of the Media in the Fear of Terrorism
This fear of terrorism is perpetuated by the unrelenting news coverage of such events. Many scholars also argue that there is also a symbiotic relationship between the media and terrorism that further benefits the goals of terrorist.
“One approach to terrorism is to see it as the use of violence to trigger and amplify communication: the ultimate target of terrorist actions is not the people attacked, but audiences that learn about it,” writes Daniel Kahneman, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus at Princeton University and author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow.
“The mass media are implicated in this process, because their own assessments of what is newsworthy give undue attention to violence compared to peaceful protest,” he continues.
Social media exacerbates things even more because everyone can weigh in with their own opinions, no matter how factual or not, and further spread fear.
The most recent example of this is when World War III became a trending topic on Twitter after Turkey shot down a Russian jet. Tweeters were a flutter with panic that a World War was breaking out, despite many experts saying these fears were misguided.
As events happen, it is important to keep in mind that increased news coverage does not mean your risk as a study abroad student is necessarily greater. Keeping in mind that the media hype makes fears -- not statistics -- worse can help you realize you should still study abroad.
Don’t Let Terrorism Keep You From Pursuing Your Dreams
To let the recent events stop you from studying abroad is, in effect, to let the terrorists win.
When asked how to defeat terrorism, author Sir Salman Rushdie responded, “How to defeat terrorism? Don’t be terrorized. Don’t let fear rule your life. Even if you are scared.”
With all the recent events it is only natural to feel some fear while traveling or studying abroad, but you can’t let that fear hold you back. Studying abroad is a great opportunity to overcome your fears as you push the limits of your comfort zone and broaden your horizons with new experiences and interactions.
In fact, by choosing to study abroad you will be choosing to learn about the world first-hand, not just by relying on news sources. While the media perpetuates fear, you may just discover how safe and welcoming the world really can be and knock down some of the stereotypes you have formed as you experience a new culture and way of life.
Robert, a student on a FIE: Peace & Conflict Resolution in the Middle East & Beyond program that took him to Jordan, said the experience shattered his stereotypes.
“Because the Middle East holds some preconceived notions, it's important to talk about Jordan itself,” he said. “In a word, very safe and fun. Amman can be quite liberal at times and the area welcomes foreigners. Even being Jewish is no issue in Amman.”
“Living in a Muslim country has been the most wonderful learning experience in my life,” added Mariel, a student who studied abroad at the American University of Sharjah, UAE.
“Traditions, culture, beliefs and even the financial system were different to the western world, which made my experience unique and exceptional,” she added. “Living in a cosmopolitan city, such as Dubai, showed me that understanding the global world is crucial to succeed in my career.”
Our World Leaders Weigh In
In response to recent terrorist events, many world leaders have delivered messages reminding the world to not let terrorism define their lives.
President Barack Obama said Americans should not “succumb to fear.”
“That’s how terrorists win,” he added. “We cannot give them the victory of changing how we go about living our lives.”
“It’s vital at a time of such tragedy and outrage not to be drawn into responses which feed a cycle of violence and hatred,” said Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition party in the United Kingdom. “We are proud to live in a multicultural and multi-faith society, and we stand for the unity of all communities,” he added.
Perhaps Hillary Clinton summed it up best when she said, “even in this darkest night, Paris remains the City of Light. No terrorist attack will ever dim the spirit of the French people or our common commitment to the democratic values we share.”
Indeed, Paris remains the City of Light and the world remains yours to explore as a study abroad student.
What to Do if You Are Abroad During a World Crisis
If a world event such as a terrorist attack does occur while you are studying abroad, here are some tips on what to do from the British Red Cross:
- Terrorist attacks happen without warning and usually in public places. Be vigilant while in crowded locations and keep an eye out for suspicious behavior.
- If an incident does occur, try to reach safe ground. If you are in a building that has been affected, protect yourself from any falling debris and leave as quickly and calmly as you can. Move away from the sight of the incident.
- After an incident, administer first aid if you are able. Volunteer any information you have that can help the police, and get in contact with your family as soon as you are able.
It's also helpful to prepare in advance of an emergency by registering with the State Department's Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and considering travel insurance. Travel insurance providers, like WorldNomads, can help students with evacuations in the unlikely case that something happens.
For further information on what to do if you are abroad during an international emergency, visit these resources:
- U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings
- U.S. Department of State Students Abroad
- U.S. Department of State Crisis Support
Go Overseas offers its condolences to all who are affected by terrorism and other acts of violence worldwide.