Some of our guests have been asking me for my insider view on how the recent travel warnings regarding Europe actually translate into daily life in Paris.
It’s a good question, one that I’m going to share with you.
As you may be aware, for the last couple of weeks American authorities have been asking citizens to be “vigilant” in Europe, after picking up hints of terrorist plotting. Indeed, European authorities have stated their approval of American warnings, saying that they too are being vigilant and increasing security presence in London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere.
The problem with the US State Department’s warning is that it is too vague to be of much value.
– Where is the threat? “Europe”.
– What is the target? “Subways, railways, aircraft, ships or any tourist infrastructure”.
– And what should Americans in Europe do? “Be aware of their surroundings” and “adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling”, advised the State Department.
A New York Times article explores the concern that these warnings are too non-specific to be actionable or of any practical use, communicating little more than the established and regrettable fact that the world can be a dangerous place.
So, in essence we are being asked to stay alert and avoid crowded places (public transport, airports, tourist sights) in the entire continent of Europe because of the threat of terror attacks.
Okay. I see.
Thing is, that’s what most Parisians have been doing anyway ever since 1995…
In 1995, Paris was the target of a number of terrorist bombings, focused on the Metro. There were 7 such distinct incidents that year, which killed a total of 8 (eight) people.
In the wake of these bombings, the French anti-terrorist plan, named “Vigipirate” was profoundly revised to prevent such events.
So what are the visible and practical consequences to this heightened state of security?
First of all, the rather stylish brushed metal public trash bins that served until 1995 were replaced by transparent green bags hanging down from circular metal rings.
Ostensibly, the idea is to see what’s in them (in case it’s a bomb).
If you ask me, I reckon they just look like big green condoms.
But hey, safety first.
It should also be noted that when Paris is on the highest alert setting, like in 1995, all the public trash bags are removed and there is nowhere at all to put trash (I guess you have to walk around with your own plastic bag until you get home). So, as long as the ‘green condoms’ are out there, it’s a sign that we are NOT on maximum alert.
The second consequence is that the luggage lockers at the railway stations were closed off (again, just in case a bomb was concealed there). This might have been a bit of a hassle for some of our clients (those with a late flight, wanting to kill a few hours in Paris without lugging around their belongings), so we offer for guests to drop off their bags at the office if they want to.
The third consequence is that Police forces are augmented with armed forces at key high-profile locations, increasing visibility. At first, back in 1995, it seemed novel, incongruous and dramatic to spot the odd camouflaged machine-gun wielding soldier in a metro station (not sure how effective green patchwork camouflage is in central Paris, but I guess the idea is to be high profile). Now, 15 years later, we don’t really notice them any more.
The fourth consequence is that since 1995, unattended packages have become “bomb alerts”, just like the one last week at the Eiffel Tower, whereby the area is promptly evacuated while a specialized squad comes in. While these alerts are not a daily occurrence, I’d say that as a regular user of the Metro system, I am mildly inconvenienced about once a month by a “bomb alert”.
These are very much standard security measures and are nothing new.
I can barely remember what it was like in the Metro before 1995, but I have grown used to the “Vigipirate” reminders on stickers, on the monitors, and in standard recorded announcements ever since. And every once in awhile the police surround Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower with yellow tape and make everyone stand back while a bomb threat is investigated. These have never made the news.
What I’m trying to say is that nothing has really changed in Paris.
Although they are nothing new, I see these security measures as a positive and welcome precaution in preventing a repeat of the 1995 bombings.
Not that there isn’t a threat. Paris has been on Red Alert, the 2nd highest of 4 settings (yellow, orange, red, scarlet) ever since the 2005 London bombing.
I guess we live in troubled times.
Some of you might have been surprised to learn the relatively low death toll of the 1995 bombings: 8 deaths in no less than 7 distinct bombings.
This is perhaps not as surprising as might first appear however…
Indeed, the principle and effectiveness of terrorism resides not so much in killing, but more in causing disruption on a MUCH larger scale.
How does this work?
The answer, based on a well-documented shortcoming of the human brain, is nothing less than fascinating.
Maia Szalavitz, senior partner of STATS (STatistical Assessment Service), put it very well:
“Because fear strengthens memory, catastrophes such as earthquakes, plane crashes, and terrorist incidents completely capture our attention. As a result, we overestimate the odds of dreadful but infrequent events and underestimate how risky ordinary events are. The drama and excitement of improbable events make them appear to be more common.”
This human error of rationality is know in psychology as the “availability error” because our assessment of likelihood can be grossly biased by information that is highly reported and available to us (like the footage of the 9/11 attacks) compared to information that is less available to us (like the average automobile accident).
The fact is: our brains are terrible at assessing modern risks.
In the wake of 9/11, some 1.4 million people changed their vacation travel plans to avoid flying. The vast majority chose to drive instead. But driving is far more dangerous than flying… even when there are terrorist strikes, so much so that and the decision to switch caused over 1,000 additional auto fatalities, according to two independent studies comparing traffic patterns in late 2001 to those the year before, one study by a Cornell research group and the the other study by the University of Michigan.
In other words, 1,000 people who chose to drive wouldn’t have died had they flown instead.
Such is the tragedy of the availability error.
According to Cass R. Sunstein (2003): “When strong emotions are involved, people tend to focus on the badness of the outcome, rather than on the probability that the outcome will occur. The resulting “probability neglect” helps to explain excessive reactions to low-probability risks of catastrophe. Terrorists show a working knowledge of probability neglect, producing public fear that might greatly exceed the discounted harm. As a result of probability neglect, people often are far more concerned about the risks of terrorism than about statistically larger risks that they confront in ordinary life.”
The conclusion would seem to be this:
Stay alert of your surroundings, but don’t let terror threats hamper your travel plans or interrupt your daily life.
Il faut vivre.
Founder & CEO
PS: For the sake of debate, I would welcome your comments on this post.