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SECURITY // The Safest Place on earth

Published Jul. 6, 2006

It's 7 a.m. and the troops are at their battle stations. Georgia State patrolmen, Atlanta police officers, Fulton County sheriff's deputies, soldiers in combat fatigues, SWAT team members dressed in black ... why, I've never felt safer jogging in my life.

America's most dangerous city? Not this week.

"The same thing happened in Los Angeles in 1984," said Robert Young Pelton, author of the best-selling book, the World's Most Dangerous Places. "There were all these gloom and doom predictions. But basically everybody left town. Crime shut down during the Olympics."

Pelton's 1995 travel guide listed Atlanta as one of America's most dangerous places. Yes, the United States has its very own chapter, right between Russia and Zaire.

" ... Olympians beware. This Southern city has the dubious distinction of possessing the highest crime rate in North America," the book states.

Such statements have caused great controversy in a city that prides itself on Southern hospitality.

Atlanta's crime rate made headlines in May when the city's largest newspaper reported: "No.

1 again: Atlanta ranked most violent."

"Atlanta's streets may not be as dangerous as those of Sarajevo, but as it prepares to open its gates to the world for the Centennial Olympic Games, the city ranks once more as the most violent in the nation."

The headline and story stirred quite a fuss at City Hall, prompting the newspaper to recalculate the FBI statistics on which it based its report.

The next day the newspaper ran another story saying Newark, N.J., had a higher violent crime rate than Atlanta, and it apologized for the error.

"Numbers only say so much," Pelton said. "Right now, during the Olympic Games, Atlanta is probably one of the safest places on Earth."

Right now, there are more than 40,000 security-related personnel in and around the city. Many Olympic visitors probably feel content just seeing all those uniforms.

But if all those automatic weapons and riot batons don't make you feel any better, all you have to do is page through Pelton's book and you'll realize just how good you have it:

Bugs _ Atlanta has only your basic garden and household varieties. There are no aedes aegypti mosquitoes to give you yellow fever or Nigerian snails to deliver parasites to your intestines.

Political unrest _ The Civil War is a distant memory, unlike Afghanistan, where Moslem fundamentalists and ex-CIA hacks duke it out in relative anonymity now that the Russians have left.

Drug wars _ Nothing like Colombia, where bombing, assassinations and kidnappings are routine as the cartels battle for the U.S. market.

Animal nasties _ There are no saltwater crocodiles, king cobras or bull sharks. The squirrels are a little overzealous, but blame the tourists who feed them peanuts.

But while sports fans may not have to worry about land mines or paying bribes to airport officials, they should keep a tight grip on their money.

"Travelers to Atlanta should be aware that the Olympics will attract every pickpocket, prostitute, hustler and thief within 500 miles," Pelton said. "There will be a lot of people from a lot of different countries rubbernecking with expensive cameras and fat wallets.

"If you stay with the herd, chances are nothing will ever happen," Pelton continued. "It is just when you venture off the beaten path ... walk home from sleazy bars at three in the morning, that people get in trouble."

The biggest danger for most travelers will be the heat. Temperatures during the day hover in the 90s, and while that might not seem like much to Floridians, to a Scandinavian flying in to follow a favorite swimmer, he or she might as well be tracking Kurtz up the Congo.

Still Pelton has some universal advice for tourists in any land.

"All people are different and all people are the same," he said. "Everybody, regardless of what country they call home, likes a handshake and a smile."

It doesn't matter if you are flying to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat or driving up Interstate 75 with the kids in the minivan to check out the women's field hockey final, Pelton's rules will apply.

"Make friends with everybody, no matter how obnoxious they seem or how mean and ugly they look," he said. "Because that cab driver who gives you a ride might have the choice of fingering you for a hit or being your best friend in the world."

It helps to read a little before you go. Travel books like the World's Most Dangerous Places are worth their weight in gold. Well, maybe not gold, silver or any other precious metal, for that matter. But guide books are good to carry. Remember, there is no greater crime than ignorance.

Besides, if kindness fails, you always can throw the book at your attacker as you run away.