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Terror warnings: Be specific or be quiet

A French soldier patrols around the Louvre museum in Paris on Sunday.
A French soldier patrols around the Louvre museum in Paris on Sunday. (Laurent Cipriani/associated Press)
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By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

"The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe. . . . 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."

-- State Department travel alert, Oct. 3

Speaking as an American who lives in Europe, I feel it is incumbent upon me to describe what people like me do when we hear warnings like this one issued on Sunday: We do nothing.

We do nothing, first and foremost, because there is nothing that we can do. Unless the State Department gets specific -- e.g., "don't go to the Eiffel Tower tomorrow" -- information at that level of generality is meaningless. Unless we are talking about weapons of mass destruction, the chances of being hit by a car while crossing the street are still greater than the chances of being on that one plane or one subway car that comes under attack. Besides, nobody living or working in a large European city (or even a small one) can indefinitely avoid coming within close proximity of "official and private" structures affiliated with U.S. interests -- a Hilton hotel, an Apple computer shop -- not to mention subways, trains, airplanes, boats and all other forms of public transportation.

Second, we do nothing because if the language is that vague, then nobody is really sure why the warning has been issued in the first place. Obviously, if the American government knew who the terrorists were and what they were going to attack, it would arrest them and stop them. If it can't do any better than mentioning "tourist infrastructure" and public transportation, it doesn't really know anything at all.

In which case, why are they telling us about it? Since the warning made breakfast television on Sunday morning, speculation has been rife. So far I have heard at least one full-blown conspiracy theory: Some believe the U.S. government has issued this statement to frighten Europeans into greater intelligence cooperation, and in particular to persuade the European Union to agree to a new system of airline passenger data exchange.

Other rumors say that the CIA believes al-Qaeda, or some al-Qaeda knockoff group, is planning simultaneous attacks on hotels in major European cities, something like the 2008 attacks on the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai. This information, according to the rumor, is supposed to have come from an interrogation carried out last summer.

Yet even if U.S. intelligence agencies possess information as solid as that -- and, I repeat, I have absolutely no evidence that they do -- there is still no point in the State Department telling us to remain alert when standing next to any American object, because even if we do it today, we won't tomorrow.

This sort of thing has happened before. In 2004, the employees of the IMF and World Bank in Washington arrived at work to find themselves the subject of sudden media interest: Maps and detailed plans of their offices had been found on a laptop in Afghanistan, and a warning had been issued as a result. But, of course, it wasn't realistic to maintain a vigilant watch of indefinite length on a building used by hundreds of people every day, many of them suspiciously foreign-looking. And, of course, the advice was quickly forgotten, and everyone went back to work.

In truth, the only people who can profit from such a warning are the officials who issue it. If something does happen, they are covered: They warned us, they told us in advance, they won't be criticized or forced to resign. And if nothing happens, then we'll all forget about it anyway.

Except that we don't forget about it. Over time, these kinds of enigmatic warnings do al-Qaeda's work for it, scaring people without cause. Without so much as lifting a finger, Osama bin Laden disrupts our sense of security and well-being. At the same time, such warnings put the U.S. government in the position of the boy who cried wolf. The more often general warnings are issued, the less likely we are to heed them. We are perhaps unsettled or unnerved, but we don't know what to do. So we do nothing -- and wish that we'd been told nothing as well.

applebaumletters@washpost.com


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