Sochi-bound amid specter of terrorism - The Buffalo News
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Sochi-bound amid specter of terrorism

To go, or not to go.

That, for Mike Shatzel, is the question.

Whether it is more prudent to exercise caution and deprive oneself of a memorable experience? Or whether ’tis nobler to forge ahead in the face of a threat, accept the assurances of the head of a high-security state and venture to an Olympic site close to a hive of terrorist activity?

With apologies to Shakespeare, that is the choice facing Buffalo restaurateur Shatzel and about 10,000 other Americans with travel plans for Sochi.

The Winter Olympics begin a week from today, and plenty of folks are packing anxiety along with their bags.

The U.S. Olympic Committee is advising athletes not to wear identifying clothing around town. The State Department just updated its travel alert for Sochi. The nearby Caucasus Mountains are swarming with Chechen separatists, who for years have waged a war of independence against Russia. Aside from Islamic militants, Syrian insurgents are furious at Russian President Vladimir Putin for backing tyrant Bashar al-Assad.

All of which raises the question: Whose bright idea was it to hold the Winter Olympics there?

Officials of the International Olympic Committee – which in 2007 selected Sochi over Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea – are downplaying any danger. But it sounds as if they’re whistling past the graveyard – even as strongman Putin boasts of a “ring of steel” around Sochi, with 60,000 security police, electronic surveillance and flying drones.

Shatzel, whose restaurant stake includes Liberty Hound and Blue Monk, just wants to hang out with friends and watch some Olympic hockey.

“I’m still going,” he told me Thursday. “It’s definitely alarming, hearing about everything. But I’m just going to deal with it.”

His wife, Suzanne, bailed out of the travel group last week. She was understandably concerned by reports of “black widow” terrorists targeting the Games, one of them supposedly already in Sochi.

“That was the final straw for her,” Shatzel said. “She said she can’t envision how a vacation is worth risking making our kid an orphan.”

Granted, terrorist attacks can happen anywhere – as residents of New York and Boston well know. Violence is not exclusive to any country, and the United States itself – fresh off mall and school shootings – is notorious internationally for random attacks, including massacres.

But the international nature of the Olympics is a ready-made platform for terrorist groups to write a political statement in blood. The key bad guy is Doku Umarov. The Chechen rebel leader has urged Islamic separatists to target the Olympics, which he reportedly described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”

In the three months since Umarov’s dictate, three suicide bombers killed more than 40 people in Volgograd, a transportation hub less than 500 miles from Sochi. Militant Islamic groups targeted buses and a train station, raising fears of using public transportation.

Terrorists, of course, trade in fear, depending on it to change our behavior.

Shatzel won’t let it alter his plans.

“With all of the security,” he said, “Sochi might be the safest place in the world.”

Let’s hope so.


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