The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert yesterday warning citizens to exercise extra caution if traveling to Europe, effective from now until Jan. 31. Apparently, when the name “Osama Bin Laden” enters airwaves, it’s time to stick our heads in the sand and wait until the safety of February travel. Unfortunately, the world does not strictly follow U.S. travel alerts. It’s never particularly safe to travel—and that shouldn’t matter.
In a nation overloaded with counter-terrorism and security experts and watchers, we have become masters of the vague threat alert. The latest: terrorists mimicking the tactics of the tragic 2008 Mumbai attacks in any one of Europe’s three biggest countries. Osama Bin Laden may or may not be involved; so might other leaders. Of course, the same experts who can divine terrorists’ intent do so only before strictly necessary. The official who spoke to the Associated Press also said there were no indications that there was a capability of such attacks to actually take place. So to summarize: Al-Qaeda wants to attack tourists in Europe but probably doesn’t have new methods to do so.
This is newsworthy if you strongly believed that Al-Qaeda didn’t want to attack Europe. I, for one, was expecting Middle Earth to be a target—but the intent to target the United Kingdom, France, or Germany? This New Yorker and eyewitness of the 2006 Heathrow terrorism scare never saw that one coming.
Of course, I may have been too flippant just now, but consider what this travel alert really means. It’s not as serious as a “Travel Warning,” such as is currently in place for Mexico. The struggling war on drugs in that country is rated as a higher risk for Cabo San Lucas aficionados. In Europe, the State Department just wants you to be mindful of “the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure.” Tourists should remember that they are not safe on subway, rail, aviation, and maritime services. The State Department must not have to take taxis when they travel—if cabs are the only safe mode of transportation left to us, we are in trouble.
The United Kingdom duly followed the United States in upping its traveler threat level. France was already at its second-highest threat level, which apparently already included vague, non-imminent attack possibilities, so they stayed put. No arrests have been made in connection to the alleged plot that has sparked all this. The BBC, however, reports that, according to “European officials,” several people are still under surveillance. This should be particularly troubling here in a nation where we are used to not a single person ever being under surveillance, thanks to the Constitutional stand taken by the Bush administration. Oh, wait.
Along with the media’s job to report that the State Department issued this warning—and if you agree with the warning, you should be glad that the media duly publicizes it—the media has of course not let us down in adding a hysteria factor to the story. The BBC, in a mostly responsible article on the alert that concludes with a section on America’s corresponding increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, still includes a gem speculating that the alert may hurt European tourism industries. Then there are whole articles that write this speculation large. The Associated Press, for example, posits that Europe’s economy may take a hit before quoting experts as saying that it actually will be the same. Well done, AP: providing a balanced look at a ridiculous question by contrasting the comments of several random, concerned tourists with the opinions of actual experts who don’t see this as a major concern yet.
If anything, the speculation of a financial effect from this travel alert will be potentially self-fulfilling. Spreading doubt sells, but it also creates more doubt. Hopefully those who are considering travel to Europe will take in the State Department’s alert, process it, and continue with their plans. Reading stories about how they might stay at home, hurting European business, would only make them reconsider whether they should in fact stay (to avoid hypocrisy—travelers reading this story: Go!).
All travel comes with risk. An attack may happen eventually in Europe; it’s happened in the recent past in Madrid, London, and elsewhere. That attack may even have similarities to Mumbai and would be a human disaster. We must of course hope that any such attempts are thwarted before they begin. Yet, if such an attack does happen, it will not validate this alert and its media attention. Tourists should always be vigilant and aware of their surroundings—traveling in a foreign place is not entirely safe even without the prospect of terrorism. Tourists can get robbed, ripped off, scammed—it happens every day in every travel destination in the world.
Such generalized, half-measure alerts may appease the 24-hour news cycle. The government can always say—if something tragic does happen—that it warned its citizens to be vigilant. But vigilance alone would most likely not be enough to ensure safety in such a situation. And we should all keep our eyes open when we travel, if only to avoid the guy on the corner who won’t leave us alone until we buy one of his Eiffel Tower pencil sharpeners.
Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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