Everyone gets afraid sometimes. It makes sense. We live in a big, beautiful world, but it's also a scary place. Every unknown X factor out there seems just as likely to be dangerous as breathtaking. People react to that fear in different ways—by closing off, by taking fewer chances, by trusting others less. And while people may be quick to point fingers at political leanings as a cause, research indicates that when faced with a threat, liberals and conservatives act similarly. That's part of how the PATRIOT Act passed. So how do we become less afraid? Partially by travelling smart and partially by knowing where the danger really is and isn't.
Look at the Facts
It can be unhelpful to say to a frightened person, "Here are statistics about why your fear is invalid." No one likes that. It's not helpful. But at the same time, a fear of flying only hurts you. Confronting or not confronting it affects your ability to get out and enjoy the world. Fear of "terrorists"? Well, that's fear of other people, people who have to share a planet with you. Falling down that rabbit hole can get ugly in a hurry.
How Many ISIS Members Are There, and How Many Muslims?
Recent events have seen a spike in terroristic attacks in Belgium, Lebanon, France, and Turkey, all claimed by a jihadist military group self-proclaimed as the Islamic State. It's hard, given the nature of a group like this, to know how many of them there are, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is estimating between 80,000 and 100,000. That's a lot of people, sure. But compare that to the number of people in the world who practice Islam. A 2010 study estimated 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. It's the second-largest religion on the planet, and it accounts for 23% of the world's population. That's nearly one in four people worldwide. Think about those numbers.
So how many Muslims are actually members of the Islamic State extremist group? Well, if we take that 100,000 figure and divide it by the 1.6 billion-person figure (probably an underestimate, given the age of the data) then we wind up with...approximately 0.00625%. That's not even one-hundredth of a one-hundredth chance that a random Muslim is associated with terrorism. Worrying about all Muslims is crazy. It also means that you're closing yourself off to what the other 99.99375% of people have to offer.
Some fears are extra-unhealthy because they never go away. People who obsess over having an aneurysm, for instance. There's nothing to be gained by that fear, and there's not really anything that can assuage it. Similarly, fear of a quarter of the population on earth—that may be even more painful and even more fruitless.
It's Not One-Sided
It's not uncommon, at this point in the discussion, for someone to roll their eyes and sarcastically spit out the notion that Islam is the religion of peace. The thing to remember is that Christianity (the world's largest religion) doesn't have the greatest track record either, from the Crusades, to the Spanish Inquisition, sectarian violence across the United Kingdom and Ireland, witch trials in the United States, and even today, in the form of militia violence in Africa. Of course, if you're a Christian reading this, you might say, "But those aren't real Christians." The same is true for Muslims. At any rate, as uncomfortable and frightening as this discussion can be, it's relatively okay, because it is empirically proven that we live in the most peaceful era of human history.
We Live in the Most Peaceful Era in Human History
Wait, wait, wait. That headline can't possibly be right, can it? Just look at the news; there are mass shootings all the time and explosions every other week. That just can't be true. Yet, it is. Rates of violent crime, including homicide, sexual assault, and more are on the decline. Civilians killed in massacres has dropped. Democracy is on the rise around the world, and with it, autocracy is plummeting. These are undeniable, measurable, documented facts about the world around us.
Know Where the Targets Are
Of course, being told cheerful platitudes about peacefulness may not be comforting to everyone. If you're really anxious, do research into where these terrible things are actually happening. The rallying cry is usually "It could happen anywhere!" While that's technically true, there are places where it happens more often. The State Department currently advises "worldwide caution." While this isn't terrifically comforting, you need to bear in mind that their job is to be as paranoid as possible on your behalf. You can turn to actual data, like this chart at The Washington Post about where attacks are actually happening. Note that most of the fighting is actually in the Middle East. If you're not travelling to the Middle East, you're probably in pretty good shape.
What It All Means
Is it scary? Sure, but every era of civilization has had its trials, from black death to imperialism to World War to mutually assured destruction. The facts of the matter are these: the people responsible for these horrific acts represent a minuscule fraction of a percentage of the faith they claim to represent. They don't dominate the globe. They're concentrated in places you're probably not visiting, and when you put them aside, the world is actually better off right now than it's ever, ever been. It's all going to be okay.