How to Stay Alive in a Terrorized Hotel

Four hotels I've stayed in recently have now been blown up, so count me an expert on where not to stay. But I've also thought a bit about how to stay alive in hotels - I'm sort of the TSA of hotel security, except that, unlike the TSA, I recognize that most of my advice is utterly without value. Also, my personal security guru, Bruce Schneier, says it's foolish even to worry about hotel safety, because the chances of something happening on any particular night in any particular hotel are vanishingly small.  The taxi ride to the hotel is invariably more dangerous than the hotel itself. But: Here are six ways to minimize your chances - already remote - of dying in a hotel besieged by terrorists. I'm not including in this some of the self-inflicted mistakes people make, such as allowing Russian prostitutes into your Baku hotel room and believing that they have your best interests at heart.

1)   Avoid big hotels. I stopped staying at the Marriott in Islamabad years and years ago. It was fairly well-protected, as hotels go - not like the hotels in Amman, though not terrible - but it was an obvious target, a supersized American hotel in a country boiling with anti-American feeling. Terrorists tend not to waste time on small  targets; they're trying to maximize the body count and hit targets of maximum symbolic value at the same time.

2)    If you can't help but stay at a behemoth, order room service whenever possible. This minimizes your exposure to restaurants located off the lobby.  Obviously, the lobby is the most dangerous place in a hotel; it is akin to the security lines at American airports, which are prime targets for suicide bombers precisely because they're entirely insecure.

3)    Ask for a room on the 4th, 5th or 6th floors, unless you're reasonably sure the fire department in the city you're visiting doesn't have ladders that reach up to six. I try to be high enough to escape whatever chaos might occur on the ground floor, but not so high that I can't be reached. I'm always of two or three minds on this question; it's also not a bad idea to stay on a floor close enough to the ground that a jump will leave you with broken legs and nothing more.

4)   Make two plans the moment you set foot in your room. Figure out how you're going to escape, and figure out, alternatively, how you're going to survive a siege. If escape isn't an option - say, you believe that men are roaming the floors with automatic weapons - try to figure out what you're going to use to fortify your room. In certain parts of the world - well, two - I'll barricade myself in my room at night, using a desk or dresser.  This is dangerous, of course, in the event of fire. But I measure the risk. In dodgy places, fill your bathtub, if you have one, with water; it will come in handy if you can't leave (and, of course, if there's fire outside your door). Always travel with a flashlight, utility knife (they're easy to sneak past TSA), matches, and a few energy bars. Know where your shoes are, as well as your passport and money, just in case you have to get out in the dark. Also, identify a lamp or other piece of furniture that could be used as a weapon of last resort.

5)   Set up tell-tales in your room before you leave for the day; I use a discreetly-placed length of dental floss to make sure no one's tampering with my laptop.  It's always good to know if somebody's been poking around your stuff.
6)  Stay in hotels that have already been bombed or otherwise attacked. Mumbai is a fairly safe place for travelers right now. And visiting India soon sends a message that civilization cannot be defeated by terror. But that's another subject.

If you have other tips, please send them my way and I'll post them.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.


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