The current story about three Americans who have been "detained" by Iran while hiking in Kurdistan (aka Northern Iraq) near the poorly marked Iranian border reminded us of a conversation with a colleague last week at a party in Islamabad. In our line of work, where solid yet realistic security information is hard to come by or contradictory, it can be hard to assess which in-country activities are perfectly fine, which are risky and which are fucking stupid. It is often necessary to rely on one's best judgment. My colleague described her personal assessment system: "If something happens to me, are my friends going to mock me and say I deserved it?"
We rely on the same system! It's more effective at preventing you from doing stupid shit than listening to overprotective employer-funded security firms. It's crowd-sourced security! Using this system, we elected not to conduct field tests in random neighborhoods in Rawalpindi and came home safely, having suffered no mocking (for that particular activity, at least).
A variation on this conversation also occurred in Istanbul while our Greek journalist friend was held in solitary confinement in Iran on espionage charges for three weeks. Even though he was doing something important and fun (covering the Iranian election), how much sympathy did he deserve for getting into the jam in the first place? Some argued that, since he knew the risks going in, not much. (Iason, we'll let you know who we're not going to call first if we ever get kidnapped by the Taliban).
Because we live to serve, we've developed this informative graph that will help you decide if you should take the risk of your friends mocking you for doing something stupid in a shitty place. We worry, however, that we've given too much weight to the boring/interesting part of the Y axis, thus uncharacteristically diminishing the importance of the "how much money is at stake?" factor.
We rate the story about the hiking Americans as follows: Traveling to Northern Iraq barely merits a shrug. There are a few tourists and lots and lots of people work and move around freely in Erbil and Suleymaniye. For now, it's not unpredictably violent like Baghdad. But hiking anywhere near the Iranian border without a local guide, especially given the current environment? That's exactly the type of activity that would make your friends in Erbil accuse you of fucktardery, especially since it was an elective activity. Sneaking into North Korea on behalf of an online TV station no one watches? Unfathomingly retarded.
Sometimes, the system fails, as it did last year when a friend was killed in a Kabul suicide attack while working out at the Serena, a relatively low-risk activity at the time. When things like that happen, your friends will be silent for a minute, then make a similar calculation: "well, that would never happen to me because I would never do X, Y or Z."
Well, I would never work for the US Government.
Well, I would never stay in a hotel that's such an obvious target.
Well, I would never go the gym after work.
Sometimes, it's best to to sit in the bar.