Europe Terror Alert: CYA + Crying Wolf = ?

The State Department's terrorism threat warning for Europe is probably meaningless. If it isn't, it'll be perceived that way.

Yesterday, the State Department issued a Travel Alert for citizens  warning of “the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe.”

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.

But what, exactly, does this mean?

What the Government is specifically not saying — although the Alert itself does not make this clear — is that Americans should avoid travel to Europe.

The travel alert does not mention students specifically, but at a briefing Sunday, Patrick F. Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, was asked about study abroad and said that colleges should not call off programs.

We’re not – we’re not recommending, that American citizens of any kind – business, tourism, study abroad – we are not – we are not, not, not saying that they should defer travel to Europe at this time, absolutely not,” said Kennedy.

Fine.  But, if Americans aren’t being advised not to go to Europe, what is it that we are being advised to do?  Shouldn’t people always be aware of their surroundings?  Especially in strange places?

Further, even traveling domestically, American airports have been on Alert Level ORANGE (High Risk of Terrorist Attacks) for what seems like years.  And even walking around, we’re at Alert Level YELLOW (Elevated – Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks) or higher since the system was created in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.   Nearly a decade ago.

So, aside from covering bureaucratic asses — Hey, we warned you! — this all accomplishes nothing.  Indeed, because we never stand down from high alert levels, we’ve created a Boy Who Cried Wolf Effect.   Even serious warnings are met with a shrug by most of us at this point.

UPDATE:   Lest new readers think this is some veiled swipe at the Obama administration, here’s the conclusion of my December 2003 post “Level ORANGE.”

Since the inception of the system, we have always been in either Elevated or High status. Because the level is set by a bureaucracy, it will likely always be either Elevated or High. No bureaucrat is going to be willing to take the risk of lowering the level to merely Guarded or–Heaven forfend–Low because, if they do, and an attack happens, heads would roll. Likewise, we’re unlikely to see the level raised to Severe unless we’re literally in the midst of an attack and already know it. No one is going to be willing to call Red Alert and then not have an attack happen.

Nearly seven years later, that’s still right.

FILED UNDER: Europe, National Security, Terrorism, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. aside from covering bureaucratic asses

    And thus you’ve cracked the code.

    This isn’t about safety so much as it is about avoiding blame if (when ?) something happens.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Rather similar to all those raisings of the color alert to orange? I noticed in one of AP’s classic reverse headlines this morning that tourists were described as being on edge about the warning and then in the text they were described as taking it in stride. I’m sure this warning (like the orange alert ones) will receive as much attention as a bee farting in Tibet.

  3. john personna says:

    I thought it was interesting that it followed a public statement by Bin Laden (for flood victims). I wondered if they thought the statement had coded instructions embedded within.

  4. Franklin says:

    Two things:

    1) Hmmm, a terror warning a month or so before elections. Surprise, surprise, surprise.

    2) Terrorism Alert Level: Geez, what a joke. Wired magazine just had an article systematically documenting just how shitty of an idea that was. Conclusion: The level will never be changed again.

  5. Andre Kenji says:

    The most interesting thing is that the American media is more worried about these supposed attacks than the European media. Only yesterday the French Newscasts began to talk about these things, and they talked more about this Department of State memo than about the attacks.

  6. michael reynolds says:

    I love the idea that we should “Be aware.”

    Oh, look, there’s a guy with an assault rifle, shooting at us. Let’s all focus the power of our awareness on him.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    But, if Americans aren’t being advised not to go to Europe, what is it that we are being advised to do?

    Drink lots of coffee while we’re on the plane? Could this be the result of a conspiracy among the Colombians, Kenyans, and Jamaicans?

  8. James Joyner says:

    Drink lots of coffee while we’re on the plane?

    Although, ironically, the security procedures put in place make that rather risky, since you’re not allowed to get out of your seat the first 30 minutes and last 30 minutes of the flight. Or to queue up outside the lavatory.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    Andre Kenji says:
    Monday, October 4, 2010 at 10:57
    “The most interesting thing is that the American media is more worried about these supposed attacks than the European media.”

    You haven’t noticed the tiniest tendency to overhype threats of any kind in this country? Remember the Killer Bees.

  10. John Burgess says:

    ‘Avoid blame,’ of course, also includes ‘avoid litigation’ and ‘avoid perfect hindsight Congressional investigations’.