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Ingber '15: Responsibility to protect (ourselves)

A column in Tuesday's Herald suggested not only that study abroad programs are relatively frivolous, but also that circumventing State Department travel advisories is an acceptable way to have a meaningful international encounter ("Want a real international experience? Take time off," Sept. 18). Katie Sola '14 posited that independently venturing into Lebanon, or any other country, is in fact the "correct" way to go abroad. Her message is wrong and potentially dangerous - she is suggesting that we ignore crucial security warnings so that we can have a meaningful "experience." Just because we are intelligent students and desire enriching experiences, we shouldn't have a false sense of invincibility, nor should we undermine and disregard the security measures taken by our government to keep us safe.

Many security and diplomatic experts spend their professional careers deciding where it is safe for Americans to travel. Every country on the State Department travel advisory list is there for good reason. Each has internal instability that could change the political and social climate instantaneously. 

As evidenced by the recent murders in Libya and embassy breach in Egypt, the State Department has sound evidence to advise travelers not to go to certain destinations. It is absolutely ridiculous to purport that Lebanon is included on the list because of "Israeli-American coziness." Lebanon sits on that list because Hezbollah, an armed Islamic terrorist group, controls the vast majority of the country and has rallies in which supporters chant, "Death to America." In addition, the New York Times published an article Sept. 17 about the Syrian conflict spilling over into Lebanon. I cannot imagine Lebanon is a safe place to travel.

 Sola wrote, "Of course, I sacrificed the logistical and social safety net of a traditional study abroad program. But living independently forced me to negotiate with Lebanese realities." There is something seriously wrong here. Sola ignores the most important factor she forfeited by traveling alone to a dangerous country - security.

The "Lebanese realities" she had to deal with could have resulted in far more serious consequences than temporary vagrancy. We need to appreciate that going to Lebanon or Mali or Sudan - especially independently - takes for granted the entire security apparatus of the United States and the men and women who risk their lives to protect American citizens. We, especially as privileged students, should take that to heart.

You might remember the two American hikers who were captured and jailed in Iran on trumped-up espionage charges. Was the "experience" really worth spending time in a miserable Iranian prison?

The two hikers not only put themselves at personal risk, but also jeopardized and compromised America's safety and diplomatic footing in the region. Should a student studying independently in unsafe territory get himself or herself into trouble, the U.S. will have to use both financial resources and political capital to bail them out - as it should - from a situation that could have been avoided had the student not ignored travel warnings and common sense.

Furthermore, Sola downplays the severity of the problems in countries that she suggests people visit. The organized "political and religious violence" in Lebanon is not tantamount to the desultory crime in other cities. I would not suggest traveling to cities with high murder and assault rates either, but that cannot be compared to regimented ideological groups carrying out methodical, organized violence.

These groups also serve as the de facto government in certain areas. Would American students turn to Hezbollah if they needed help while traveling in Southern Lebanon? Or al-Qaeda in Yemen? It is also just as ridiculous to argue that navigating the streets of Providence late at night is similar to staying out of trouble in Beirut. If anyone has seen armed militias walking on Thayer Street, please tell me, because I might consider transferring.

While it is noble and adventurous to seek out alternative opportunities to travel, this does not mean that we have the right as go-getters to ignore security admonishments and advisories. Beyond the difficulty of convincing your parents to let you travel to Eritrea, you are putting yourself in grave danger and the U.S. government in an extremely awkward position.

Enough cannot be said about having an embassy to walk into or a friendly police department to turn to in times of trouble. After my sister was hospitalized with dengue fever in India, I cannot imagine what would have happened had she been traveling around Kabul. All in all, I will brave the walk home from Power Street in favor of risking my kidnapping in Benin. I don't think my parents could afford the ransom anyway.

 

 

Zach Ingber '15 prefers to listen to the security experts he hopes to work with one day. He can be reached at 

zachary_ingber@brown.edu.


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