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Post 9/11 Travel Essay

view of a plane in flight
Photo caption
Long lines, more scanning, and a heightened awareness at airports have become part of air travel after 9/11.

It was a typical travel scene: As I neared the border, I pulled out my passport and driver's license and joined a barely moving line. There was tension in the air, however, and an argument broke out between two people in front of me and an armed border guard. Finally I reached the checkpoint and handed over my ID. The guard looked it over, looked me over, searched my bag, and asked why I wanted to cross. "I live here," I said, and with a grunt the New York City police officer waved me through the barricade and into my neighborhood in lower Manhattan.

The date was September 13 of last year, and in the wake of the attacks two days earlier, it was already clear that traveling anywhere—even home from work— wasn't going to be simple anymore. Now, one year later, travel has changed dramatically. Our bodies and bags are scanned and doggy-sniffed when we go to the airport—and fewer of us are going to the airport. Air travel, which virtually ceased in the weeks after 9/11, is still down by more than 10 percent from a year ago. Driving vacations are in; RV sales are up. According to an April survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, the single most important factor in the choice of a vacation destination today is whether travelers feel safe going there.

Tell me about it. My wife and I are inveterate travelers, but after watching the World Trade Center attacks from 15 blocks away we turned down an October story assignment in Turkey, a country we had longed to visit but one that suddenly seemed dangerous. We decided against a Thanksgiving trip to North Carolina because we were wary of air travel. For a December vacation, we ignored low fares to every corner of the globe and drove to Quebec City.

The truth is, we were traveling extensively throughout that time, but only in our minds. There we encountered shoe bombers, hijackers, crop dusters—a full complement of terrors every bit as bizarre as Odysseus's tormentors, the six-headed Scylla and the whirlpool of Charybdis. Our imaginations had been unleashed, and we couldn't help but conjure disaster. All of which points to the most profound change in travel post-9/11: the change in perceptions.

Think about it. Since 9/11 planes have not been falling like raindrops from the sky, cruise ships have not been exploding, trains have not been getting derailed by saboteurs—yet we fear that all these things could start happening tomorrow. A person is still more likely to die in an automobile accident than in a hijacking. (Most of the victims of the 9/11 attacks succumbed at work, not aboard jets.) Is travel really more perilous than it was before? Given the recent warnings that fanatics might detonate a nuclear bomb in the United States, not traveling could be a riskier course of action, especially for anyone living in a bull's-eye city like New York or San Francisco.

I began feeling safer after flying to and from the Salt Lake City Olympics, where I walked through metal detectors four times a day and watched soldiers wheel mirrors under cars to check for bombs. The protective measures were reassuring, but what calmed me were my flights; they felt routine, like hundreds I had taken in the past. Analyzing my paranoia, I realized that it was built more on fantasy than on fact.

These days, even as I wake up each morning to news radio ("All terror, all the time!"), I remind myself that travel isn't only safe enough to try but also important enough to make a priority. Venturing to foreign lands is a weapon against ignorance. We're not heading to Kabul this fall, but we will jet somewhere outside the country, enjoying the low fares and less-crowded airports. Now more than ever, we can't be afraid to cross borders.

Photo Illustrations by John Lund

This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.