Managing the Threat of Terrorism and the Wisdom of Insecurity in Education Abroad

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Photo courtesy of Google Images

by Bill Frederick

While the risk of random terrorist violence victimizing education abroad students is low, concern for it looms large in the minds of students, their families and education abroad practitioners. It is in part because the idea of it is so much more disturbing than the more mundane hazards we routinely encounter. As David Ropeik might suggest, people who swim a little but drive a lot, are more likely to fret about shark attacks than motor vehicle accidents.

But as attacks have increased across Europe, where most American students go to education abroad, we’ve begun to look for opportunities to manage the risk. The various measures being employed or considered can be categorized as prevention (before you go), avoidance (what to do while there) and response (what to do if an event occurs).

Prevention has largely been a matter of getting security intelligence and making decisions about what destinations to avoid. At the most rudimentary end of the due diligence continuum, many programs simply rely on the U.S. State Department travel warnings and alerts. At the high end, more and more programs are getting their intelligence from professional security outfits (iJET, Control Risks, Drum Cussac) sometimes directly and sometimes through their travel assistance providers.

Additionally, programs are scrutinizing the kinds of venues where terrorist attacks have been most frequent, i.e., low security situations where there are a lot of people - outside concerts, sporting events, walking malls, public celebrations, etc. When putting together itineraries, program leaders make determinations about avoiding exposure, minimizing exposure or accepting some exposure.

At airports the most frequent target zone has become the area between where travelers arrive at the airport and where they bottleneck at check in lines and in pre-security lines. By doing check in and ticketing before arriving at the airport and ensuring that all bags are within weight regulations, travelers can reduce the time spent in the target zone.

When considering whether or not to have a group join a public event, it would be good to know what sort of security is in place. Is there a significant police presence? Are there security cameras? Do the police periodically sweep the area looking for unattended backpacks? Have garbage cans been removed from the area? Are manhole covers welded shut? Have bollards or other obstacles been installed to reduce the likelihood of someone using a vehicle as a weapon as in Nice, Barcelona or Charlottesville?

By way of response, many groups are now routinely designating meeting points in the event of the group being separated because of a terrorist event, a hotel fire, an earthquake or a stampede such as the one that took place in Turin after a crowd outside a soccer match mistook firecrackers for gun shots.

Technology and new security service organizations are increasingly part of the everyday security equation. Devices that were initially developed for wilderness travel that allow a smartphone to become a satellite texting device are turning up more and more frequently on the streets of European capitals to be used in the event that cellphone circuits become overloaded, as happens in most high profile events, or are destroyed, as happens with many natural disasters. There are apps that allow group members to contact all other group members very quickly, or that allow an SOS message to be sent to designated recipients quickly. There are apps that receive security alerts from professional security organizations and apps that allow all phones to be located at any given moment.

Training may become more important. Currently, most training for program leaders or participants is limited to a promotion of situational awareness. For example, using “Cooper Color Code” (US Marine Corps) - get out of the white zone of being unprepared and unready to take action. Practice being in the yellow zone where you are prepared, alert and relaxed. It is critical to not lose the relaxed part of the yellow zone. You can’t and don’t want to sustain a more hyper aroused or stressed state as it is unsustainable and you’ll reduce the potential quality of your education abroad experience. Removing ear buds and reducing the time spent on portable screens is a good start. Attend to what is going on around you.

A secondary school group was at their departure airport preparing to go abroad in January 2017 when a shooter in an adjacent terminal began firing. The program leaders reported that they responded more effectively as a result of the scenario based training that they’d participated in one month prior. The training they’d taken was not focused on terrorism. It required that they work through a variety of more likely emergencies, but having worked through multiple scenarios that required their agency, they did not think of themselves as passive bystanders to which the shooting was happening. They responded. They were primed to initiate action.

There are training modalities typically utilized by law enforcement and the military that constitute a highly educated and informed yellow zone. They learn how to attend to body language, physiological tell signs, the way people are interacting and how the surrounding scene appears in relation to how it normally appears. This kind of training essentially make its practitioners explicitly aware of the signs that cause the “gut feelings” of unconsciously perceived intuition. For education abroad practitioners, the time required to develop these sorts of skills is unrealistic.

It is also worth understanding how we typically respond and how we are wired to respond.

Often we do not recognize danger. There is a tendency not to. We protect our emotional equilibrium. We normalize the data coming in. The pop, pop, pop we hear must be firecrackers or a car backfiring (until we see others running). The smoke we smell must be from someone’s fireplace. When we don’t know what to do, we do something that is familiar. A number of survivors reported that after they’d felt the impact of the planes hitting the World Trade Centers, they’d spent a surprising amount of time straightening their offices and in one case even knitting before they headed to the stairwells.

Sometimes we recognize danger in an unconscious manner. Especially if we’ve been exposed to it before, the unconscious part of our brains may recognize it well before the awareness dawns. Having evolved in the savannas of Africa for most of our evolution, we respond to sudden danger in predictable ways. Most of the physiological response and behavior is directed towards surviving an attack by a predator. Prior to awareness, our limbic system goes on alert. Our amygdala starts to fire off. The conscious problem solving part of our brain shuts down. Our minds go into a search mode for the script for how to respond. Glands release hormones that will allow us to run faster and fight harder and feel less pain. Blood is shunted to large motor muscle groups in preparation for action. This response was what we were naturally selected for, but it is largely maladaptive in most of our current circumstances. In by far the majority of instances, we need the problem solving part of our brain to come back online as quickly as possible. Being aware of how this normal response works, may help us pass through it more quickly.

For most of us, all of this concern for security may seem way out of balance and very far removed from why we chose to work in international education. But perhaps there is an unintended benefit for education abroad from these kinds of threats.

In Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes about how much healthier we are when faced with calamity. After the World Trade attacks, the suicide rate in NYC declined for the following two years, the rate of new prescriptions for psychotropic medications dropped, etc. He writes about groups in war being tribal. Everyone in a group (a patrol, a firebase team, etc.) has meaning and purpose, which is developed in the context of the group. Individual differences are trivial. Preoccupation with personal wants and needs drops off in favor of the needs of the larger group. The only real sin is selfishness.

Rebecca Solnit, in A Paradise Built in Hell, writes that people have a tendency to respond very well during disasters. While normal people are often portrayed in the media as behaving horrifically (think Katrina) during natural and man made disasters, research actually shows that the opposite is usually the case. People evacuating from crashed airplanes, burning buildings, etc. tend to be orderly and not to panic. Most survivors, pulled from the rubble after an earthquake, are rescued by normal people. However, what is most often seen in the news is professional rescuers saving the last few because the media only arrives in time for those stories. The Boston marathon bombing was an exception because the media were already there. Most of the leading stories were of bystanders applying tourniquets and taking care of the injured.  Additionally, people often recall the time following a disaster as a period when they felt closest to other people, when they felt they had the most purpose and meaning in their lives.

Robert Thurman, the foremost American scholar of Tibetan Buddhism (and actor Uma’s dad) once said that in the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology there are multiple different realms. The name of the world that we all inhabit translates to “barely tolerable”. It is considered a desirable place to be reborn because it is harsh enough that you are obliged to learn what is important to learn but not so harsh as to make it impossible to learn.

Many of the stories that education abroad practitioners tell about the current generation of education abroad students are not flattering. They would be consistent with Jeffery Arnett’s “emerging adults” and the recent discovery of their late maturation.5 The growth of mental health problems, binge drinking, discomfort with ambivalence and ambiguity, an all abiding tolerance not based on conviction so much as not wanting to be judged themselves, the need for safe spaces, etc. Solnit points out that many of our ills may be owing to our primary focus on the personal and the private and our preoccupation with entertainment and consumerism. As both Solnit and Junger point out, calamity obliges us to look beyond ourselves and to necessarily regard our relationships with each other differently as the context for discovering unsuspected capacities, meaning and purpose. And while no rational person would wish to create the risk of random terrorist violence, it is here and it may have high pedagogic value even as we strive to manage that risk.

From the New York Times Editorial Board on September 18, 2016 in response to the coordinated bombings in Chelsea, NY and NJ:

“The right response to this constant, unending, low-level threat of sudden violence is to stay vigilant and reasonable, to clean up the damage, care for the injured, look out for one another, and elect leaders who will address the challenge with sanity and good judgment. And avoid the wrong responses: A police-state overreaction would be equally damaging in its own way by adding to the intolerance and suspicion that can foster radicalization, isolation and hatred.”


David, R. and Gray, G. (2002) Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What’s Really Dangerous in the World Around You. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.

Junger, S. (2016) Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Twelve, New York.

Solnit, R. (2010) A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster. Penguin Random House, New York

See Robert Thurman,

Arnett, J. (2014) Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties (2nd Edition). Oxford University Press

The Editorial Board (2016) Reason and Vigilance After the Blast. New York Times. September 18, 2016.