Wednesday, October 6, 2010

State Department Issues a Meaningless Travel Alert for Europe

American passport
(American passport now)
This past Sunday the State Department put out a five paragraph warning to travelers who may be casting a traveling eye towards our European neighbors across the pond. Light on details, the missive states that, "Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks." In the "meatiest" paragraph, the State Department warns

 "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."

In other words, do everything you normally would do when traveling outside of the country. In fact, the State Department's Undersecretary for Management told a teleconference audience on Sunday that the alert is not a suggestion that Americans do not travel to Europe, but simply to, "to use common sense if they see unattended packages or they hear loud noises or they see something beginning to happen that they should quickly move away from them." Far be it from me to criticize the State Department for reminding people to run in the opposite direction of a flaming fireball, not towards it just because they're in Europe.

But in all honesty: how necessary is something like this? A generic warning that terrorists still want to kill us and you should be careful when partaking in international travel? Doesn't our never-ending "War on Terror" hint that there are terrorists all over the world with whom America is at war?

While the travel alert really adds nothing new to the American knowledge base when it comes to traveling abroad, it certainly can have negative effects for the destinations that it warns against (especially when that destination is the entire continent of Europe, with nearly 4 million square miles and around 50 states.) Simon Calder, a leading British travel writer, stated that the alert could have devastating effects for European tourism not just this season, but in the coming year, given that many Americans are planning vacations now for next year: "U.S. travelers are more adored than any other nationality because they spend more cash. It's going to be very grim news for thousands of workers and the tourist industry in Europe."

In a year that's seen a difficult road for the European Union economically, the travel alert cannot be seen as good news. America is not the only country to issue an alert on European travel, either. London put out an alert on Sunday for travel to France, Germany, and Sweden, stating that there is a high threat of terrorism. On Monday, Japan threw its hat into the travel alert ring with a European-wide travel alert.

There are two components to all of this that are adding confusion to who should travel where and when. One is the expiration date on the American travel alert, which is January 11, 2011. Why January 11? Is this date as arbitrary as the travel alert that essentially says, "We believe that a terrorist attack is imminent in all places in Europe, but we're not saying don't go (wink, wink)"?

Secondly, Germany is none too pleased about their recent portrayal as a target of imminent terrorism. Wolfgang Bosbach, the chairman of the German parliament's interior committee, has said that there is "no indication of an attack on a concrete target at a specific moment" and "no reason to panic and no reason to fundamentally strengthen security measures."

Again, how necessary is the State Department's travel alert? They can't talk about why they issued it, instead taking the tired route of "Trust us, we know what we're doing." Now, if an attack were to occur the State Department could say, "See, good thing we let you know what might happen." But they're not telling us to avoid traveling to Europe. This is like someone telling you every morning you could be hit by a bus if you leave your house while at the same time expressly saying they're not encouraging you to become a hermit. Because that makes sense.

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