Dangerous holiday liaisons

The beheading of a British woman in Tenerife was shocking, but we Brits are too preoccupied with biz

There was a gruesome horror about the beheading of a British woman in a Tenerife supermarket and yet there wasn't really much to be said about it. There always will be mentally disturbed people; societies always will fail to help all of them; and the odd one will kill. There is nothing an individual can do to protect herself completely from that without losing her sanity and freedom. Yet this isn't enough for society to accept these days. We are obsessed - or at least the media are obsessed - with finding a "why".

We want to understand how it happened; to frame it within a course of events: the guy had a history of mental illness, he had been released too early from a psychiatric hospital, he was supposed to be under supervision. We want to find someone "in authority" to blame - anything but accept that this was a random, haphazard act. The long and painful coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann had a similar confused urgency to it; because, if we couldn't understand how this could happen, then we couldn't be sure that it wouldn't happen to our own children.

That such events occur abroad adds to the sense of confusion. In a society geared to calibrating risk, from the hazards of allowing your children to take the bus to school to the consequences of drinking too much coffee, abroad is dangerously unknown. Weighing up the risks to yourself in an unknown foreign place seems even harder. Hence the death of British tourists or travellers overseas adds a frisson of horror: the more horrible, the better to worry over.

Positive danger

I remember going camping in Kenya 20 years ago and hearing again and again the tale of how a British student had been eaten in his sleep by a lion the week before, because he was snoring and had left his tent unzipped. Nobody had a clue whether it was true. Look at travellers' forums on sites such as TripAdvisor or Lonely Planet and there is a thread of insecurity running through them: is it safe, is it safe, is it safe?

For two months now, the Thailand forums have been worrying over the deaths of tourists in a hotel in Chiang Mai. Between four and six people appear to have died either while staying at the Downtown Inn Hotel, or soon after leaving it, including an elderly British couple, a Thai tour guide and a 23-year-old from New Zealand whose travelling companions were also hospitalised. Early theories centered on food poisoning, until it was reported that they had all died from heart attacks. There have been claims of a "cover-up" by Thai officials, and it seems odd to people in the west that the hotel remains open while the deaths are unexplained.

A slew of mysterious deaths linked to a particular hotel is a classic travellers' scare story. Could it be robbery: could the Thai police be
lying about enlarged hearts and these people have been murdered for their money? Is there an unidentified virus picking off tourists? Or can foreign food really be that dodgy? In the absence of clarity, the imagined risks multiply.

It was the sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens who in the 1990s developed the concept of the "risk society", in which dangers come not, as in the past, from natural events such as floods or famines, but from man-made problems such as modern illness, nuclear leaks or intensive farming (or travel). Giddens takes a positive approach to risk viewing it as the core element of a dynamic society; the source of the energy that creates wealth. Citizens, as he sees it, constantly make judgements about risk - what to eat, whether to take ordinary coffee or decaf, whether to drink red wine, whether to avoid GM crops.

For Beck, the story is more depressing, with a society dominated by risk having a destabilising effect on citizens' relationships with institutions of business, science and state, which are shown to be unable accurately to calculate the probability of danger from "chemical, genetic and ecological mega-hazards". More recently, Engin Isin, professor of politics at the Open University, has challenged the notion of the rational, calculating, competent citizen capable of calibrating behaviour in order to reduce risks, and suggested that modern citizens are neurotic, with the political authorities engaged in a constant battle to manage and soothe their anxieties rather than challenging them.

Travel bug

One thing that contradicts this rather dismal vision of modern mankind is our willingness to travel abroad; to get on the plane despite the threat of shoe bombers and technical failure, to stay in foreign places despite the difficulty of assessing the risks we might face there. True, many travellers hand that calculation over to travel agents and insurance companies and minimise the unknown by staying in internationally branded hotels, but still the willingness to travel at all is a heartening sign of the victory of curiosity and adventure over fear.

A characteristic of the neurotic citizen is his or her inability to calculate actual risk, rather than reacting to the dread of potential catastrophe. The lone, deranged stranger in a foreign land who can cut off the head of your granny has all the hallmarks of a classic neurotic danger - inexplicable, uncontrollable, unavoidable - and similarly with the disappearance of Madeleine McCann four years ago.

The truth behind the deaths in Chiang Mai appears to be mundane: a suspected overuse of chemicals to control bed bugs or rat poison.Chemicals, insecticides and poisons banned for use in the west are in common usage in other countries and of far more danger to tourists than lone knife murderers. As with carbon monoxide poisoning from badly maintained heating and air-conditioning units, or road accidents, or even mosquitoes, these risks are known and calculable. And so we overlook them, while shivering over a random act of violence from a madman.

This article first appeared in the 23 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Obama 2.0