My Christmas present to the family this year was a European vacation. I had been to Paris years before, and I wanted my kids, now 29, 26 and 23, to see it.
Before I booked the trip, however, the horrific Nov. 13 Paris attack by ISIS terrorists, which killed 130 innocents and wounded scores more, played out on worldwide television.
Like millions of others, my first reaction was shock, followed by empathy and anger. From this great distance, how can we help? What can we do?
Millions overlaid tricolor onto their Facebook profiles; thousands gathered to stand vigil. The White House was bathed in bleu, blanc et rouge.
I thought to myself, “Oh yeah, we’re going to Paris. Up yours.”
Was hubris driving this tour bus? The kids were game, but young people think they’re invincible—they’re really not experts in their own personal safety. (Sorry, kids, but you know I’m right.)
I reasoned that statistics showed we’d likely be safe. Besides, it would be equal parts vacation and political statement! But the thought still nagged at me that I might be exposing my kids to unnecessary risks. Just what is our VX on a European vacation?
Four days before our departure, an attacker ran down hundreds of revelers in Nice. Still, my oldest daughter, Caile, had no reservations about going. She knew the odds were on our side, and we could increase them by using our heads: Avoid large crowds. Increase your awareness. Get an international calling/data plan. Register with the U.S. Embassy. Share itineraries with trusted others. Research neighborhoods before booking Airbnb. And avoid large crowds. (Ed. note: He repeated this intentionally.)
My son, Keaton, texted me a pic of his small tactical knife, asking, “Think it’s a bad idea to take this?”
Me: “Oh yes.”
Him: (Pause) “You bringing anything to protect yourself?”
Me: “Yeah. You.”
Chuck adds, “I recommend an app called Life360. It lets you track where your family is within 10 feet. If we get separated, I can see where my daughter is and send her a text.”I called Chuck Holton, badass traveling companion of LtCol Oliver North, for travel advice. Chuck logs more miles in a year than James Bond has since “Dr. No”—to more dangerous destinations, too. I caught up with Chuck on his way to Oslo, and he imparted this wisdom:
“Terrorists are looking for: 1) soft targets, and 2) the biggest bang for their buck from a publicity standpoint. If you’re going to the Eiffel Tower, etc., you’re going to a place that’s a target.”
So we should stay in our room? No, but … “Number one, visit those venues very early in the morning, or right before they close. I saw the sights of London on a red bus in the middle of the night; I was jet-lagged anyway, and there were no crowds at all.
“That’s extreme, and you could get yourself robbed, but I needed the practice.” Badass.
“Number two, have a plan. If we get separated, here’s Plan A, Plan B, Plan C for getting back together.” Chuck adds, “I recommend an app called Life360. It lets you track where your family is within 10 feet. If we get separated, I can see where my daughter is and send her a text.”
What if those networks go down? “Pick up some GMRS walkie-talkies. They’re small, easy and cheap.”
Number three, have a rally point. Have your kids memorize it and make them repeat it back to you.
Above all, adopt the Condition Yellow mindset: “Sit near an exit. Don’t sit near a trash can; it’s a really good place to drop a satchel full of explosives.” And keep your head on a swivel: “I saw a sickening cell phone video from Nice where you could see the truck bearing down on people who were completely oblivious until it hit them. They were taking pictures, texting each other and just not paying attention.”
When my other daughter, Caitlin, walked onto the Pont Mirabeau one night to get a better picture of the Eiffel Tower, I noticed a Mercedes abandoned on the bridge right behind her. We didn’t linger; after all, there are plenty of scenic turnouts in Paris not near a beached German sedan.
We avoided the finish of the Tour de France, but just couldn’t avoid crowds altogether. In Rome, we reached the Pantheon just before closing, but the Piazza della Rotonda looked like … Lollapalooza, only with Andrea Bocelli. And I think one of the levels of Dante’s Hell was named Orly Airport.
“Put a breaking news app on your phone,” Chuck continued. “I have two or three of them. One called Fresco even tracks where you are, and sends you an alert if anything happens near you.
“Transitional spaces tend to be the most dangerous parts of your journey,” he added. “Minimize your time in parking lots, entryways, lobbies, lines, ticketing areas, etc., where you’re going from one venue to another. Never look at your phone in a transitional space, anywhere in the world.”
Chuck is a “gigantic fan of Uber. It’s far and away safer than a taxi.” He never takes an offered taxi, and skips the first taxi in line. “You’re more likely to be kidnapped by a fictitious taxi driver than anyone else,” he says.
Regarding posting your adventures on social media: “Criminal gangs are trolling Twitter and Facebook for ‘people of means’ who can come up with $10,000-$50,000 if their daughter gets kidnapped. They’re very intentional about finding people to kidnap or extort; your Facebook post that, ‘We’re off to Paris!’ is becoming more of a liability.” Chuck only allows his family to post the previous day’s vacation pics.“Criminal gangs are trolling Twitter and Facebook for ‘people of means’ who can come up with $10,000-$50,000 if their daughter gets kidnapped.”
Does Chuck advise against travel to Europe? “No, the statistical probability of being in a terrorist attack is still pretty low.” A far bigger danger, he says, is posed by groups of migrant youths with nothing to do. Germany has recorded 402,741 crimes, including mass sexual attacks, by migrants since 2014, without which crime rates would have remained static. Fifty-five crimes are committed for every 100 asylum seekers in Austria, and Norway is giving refugees courses in order to prevent sexual assault and violence against women. “I wouldn’t recommend sending your teenage daughter to Europe by herself, or with a group of teenage girls,” he cautioned.
BTW, Chuck made his daughter watch “Taken” with him before she could travel to Europe.
We asked researchers at the International Center for Vulnerability in The Hague to give a theoretical Paris vacationer 100 basis points for vulnerability, and to compute appropriate values for increased or decreased risk. Scores listed are for a party of four.
You are taking your three children to Paris (+100 pts). Add 50 pts for every one who happens to be a teenage girl; subtract 100 pts if one is a current, or former, Navy SEAL (subtract another 20 pts if you are Liam Neeson).
Add 10 pts for every hour you are part of a crowd of over 100 people; +20 pts for every taxi ride; +10 pts for standing in line; and +5 pts for every text. And +25 pts for every photo of you, posted in real time, at the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Disneyland Paris or any other French destination where web-savvy bad guys could find you.
+25 pts for carrying a selfie stick.
Finally, add 1,000 pts if you are either going to: a) go dancing at a nightclub, b) play Pokémon Go, or c) travel through Orly International.
The truth is that even the worst VX score should not prevent you from sharing the timeless wonders of Europe with your family. Terrorists want to bully free people into fearing the exercise of their freedoms, but a response to bullying is deeply embedded in American DNA.