Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

Paranoia on the High Seas

| November 28, 2011

Cruise ships are very safe — but facts can't stop an overboard imagination


TO MAKE car travel safer, wear a seat belt. To survive in a hurricane-prone area, store at least three days of emergency provisions. To live in a neighborhood prone to violence, walk only on lighted streets. To avoid shark attacks, don’t swim in shark-infested waters.

Public safety is often the art of the obvious; the hard part is educating the public on how to protect themselves from catastrophe. So it should be an almost ideal situation to find yourself with your family at a place where there is little to protect from and almost nothing to do in any event. The only problem is that it requires a lot of letting go. To really enjoy it, you must leave your fate and your safety to the white puffy gloved hands, in the shape of those seen on Mickey Mouse, worn by staff greeting us at every corner.

This year, we decided to spend Thanksgiving break on a Disney family cruise. A Disney cruise is not just about imagining a world with princesses and magic and perfect kisses; it is also about ceding control over your own independence. Walt, and only Walt, has got our backs.

Cruise travel offers few opportunities to actually empower yourself with information to promote your own safety. I had tried to arm myself before the trip with any knowledge of how to survive in what is essentially a moving city, how to ensure my kids don't fall overboard, how to get to the lifeboat first. "The responsibility ultimately falls to you to protect yourself and your interests while on board," I read on one travel website. It's a total fallacy. It assumes that passengers have the ability to actually manage anything for themselves.

The trip begins with a short evacuation drill, led by a guy who I swear is Goofy in the ship's nightly theater show. After that short interruption, no bad is allowed in the Magic Kingdom. When my youngest son tripped and let out a cry, no fewer than four crew members were with him before I even noticed. (Scrapes and cuts are strongly discouraged in the enchanted garden.)

Having spent a career in public safety and homeland security, letting go has been no easy feat. I have always tried to be realistic about the threats we face and the likelihood of harm. But I also know that the best way to avoid risk is to have some control over your movement and senses.

Cruises provide no such options. And that leaves a lot of time to let the brain wander, especially for someone who has worked in counterterrorism. When I think of cruises, it isn't the Love Boat, it's the Achille Lauro when, in 1985, four gunmen hijacked the Italian ship, demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners and killing Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old disabled American tourist. Right now as I write, I am wondering why the engines are turned off. I remember that scene in the Titanic movie when that woman asks a shocked captain the same question. We all know the ending.

Any rational person studying the numbers would know that ship travel is relatively safe. About 115 people die every day in vehicle crashes in the United States; that's one death every 13 minutes. Annually, 62 people around the world die from shark attacks; oddly, twice as many people die from falling coconuts.

Of the 12 million people worldwide who took cruises last year, there were only 22 deaths. Those are pretty good statistics, though not everything is perfect. People manage to fall off; crime occurs; viruses abound. Still, traveling by cruise is actually about the safest mode of transportation during the holidays. Certainly, we are urged to wash our hands regularly to protect from viruses. Passports and identification are a must when entering or leaving the ship.

Alcohol consumption is encouraged, but only so far. It is not obvious how a small child could fall off a ship; the sides are fortified and protected. Somali pirates seem pretty far away.

There is, in fact, almost nothing to do to be safer. And I just have to accept that Disney did not create an eighth dwarf named Paranoid.

The numbers are hard to contest; both the likelihood of harm and the capacity to prevent it are negligible. It's like a magical kingdom, a never-never land. It just takes a lot of work to believe it.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“Paranoia on the High Seas.” The Boston Globe, November 28, 2011.

The Author

Juliette Kayyem