Growing concern about specific terrorist threats targeting Europe in the past few weeks, with the focus on Britain, France, and Germany, led the State Department yesterday to issue a “travel alert” related to Europe. Here is the key portion of the alert:
The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe. Current information suggests that al-Qaida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks. European governments have taken action to guard against a terrorist attack and some have spoken publicly about the heightened threat conditions.
Terrorists may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests. U.S. citizens are reminded of the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure. Terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services.
U.S. citizens should take every precaution to be aware of their surroundings and to adopt appropriate safety measures to protect themselves when traveling.
On the one hand, the alert’s content and timing make sense. As I noted above, the discussion of a possible threat to Europe has been growing not only in the United States but also in France, Britain and Germany, with a flurry of increasingly specific news last week about a possible “Mumbai-style” attack in these countries, though reports differed on whether or not the plot was still “active” or whether or not it had even transitioned to an operational stage of planning.
Still, I have to question the value of alerts like the one excerpted above. While it is understandable that the government would want to offer some sort of official indication of the increased threat, a warning about travel to an entire continent, as well as words of caution about ubiquitous “public transportation” and heavily-trafficked tourist sites are so broad that they limit the power of any information contained in the warning itself.
Moreover, at a time when European governments are backtracking and reassuring their citizens that the threat information is not new, or not a cause for alarm, what message does this kind of alert send? Even if State Department officials assure Americans that they “are not, repeat not, advising Americans not to go to Europe,” and even if the “alert” does not rise to the level of a “warning” I fear this secondary information will get lost in the shuffle. Indeed, the headlines from this country and in others have been dominated not by subsequently reassuring messages from the administration or State, but by the initial news of a terrorism warning to Americans traveling in Europe.
It is possible that this kind of reaction is inevitable, and a cost of the government making public statements about dangerous situations. But such a statement must either be issued in a way so as not to provoke overreactions, or followed by information that will either calm fears or help travelers avoid specific threats. Overly-general warnings effecting hundreds of thousands of people that provide little actual information only serve to sow more fear without making people any safer.
— Andrew Lebovich