High Alert Schizophrenia
November 3, 2010
Last week’s news cycle was all about warning Americans about traveling in Europe because of concerns about a possible terrorist attack—resulting from information from Ahmed Sidiqi, an alleged German militant currently in U.S. custody in Afghanistan, about a “Mumbai-style” attack against European targets. Another factor was five Germans killed by an American missile strike in Pakistan near the Afghan border, who were believed to be in the region for terrorist training and part of a plot described by Sidiqi. However, the plot appears to be a general conspiracy to commit terrorism rather than a specific plan to attack a particular target (or targets). According to a U.S. intelligence bulletin, al-Qaeda continues to want to attack the United States. But that shouldn’t be news or any big surprise. And in the next breath, the bulletin says there is nothing specific or imminent related to any European plots. Indeed, both the FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said they have no indications that terrorists are targeting U.S. citizens as part of a new threat to Europe. So why has the State Department advised Americans living or traveling in Europe to take more precautions?
Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff told ABC’s Good Morning America, “Don’t walk around with the American flag on your back.” Yet German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the terrorist threat is a “high abstract danger” and that “there is no reason to be alarmist at this time.” If all this sounds familiar, it should. It’s reminiscent of when the color-coded homeland security alert system was introduced. On numerous occasions the government issued warnings about possible terrorist threats. Sometimes the alert level would change from yellow (significant risk of terrorist attacks) to orange (high risk of terrorist attacks). But in other instances there would be warnings without any change in the alert level. (Not only is it hard to determine how warnings about threats relate to the alert level, given that there haven’t been any terrorist attacks regardless of the alert level, it’s hard to know if the alert level makes any difference at all.) And invariably, threat warnings and changes in the alert level would be accompanied by a message to the general public to go about their normal, everyday lives. So even though the government is warning that something bad might happen, don’t worry . . . go shopping.
So what are Americans supposed to do? Not go to Europe? Or leave if they’re already there? Stay away from high profile places that might be lucrative terrorist targets? For example, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice in September due to bomb threats (thankfully, both a false alarm—as was a bomb threat that forced a major Paris train station to be evacuated). Sadly, tourists wanting to visit the Eiffel Tower are more likely to be terrorized by the French unions, which forced the closure of France’s most visited monument as part of strikes protesting the Sarkozy government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.
To be sure, it would be irresponsible if government completely ignored the threat of terrorism and sat idly by. However, the warnings—then and now—amount to high alert schizophrenia. If the threat is real, then say so and tell people exactly what they need to do to reduce their exposure and risk. But if the threat is more general and ubiquitous, then don’t raise people’s anxiety levels needlessly.
Finally, here are two things to consider. First, as 25-year-old Berliner Marian Sutholt said, “If you worry all the time, you actually live up to exactly to what the terrorists want.” In other words, if we live our lives in fear and terror then we are, in effect, allowing ourselves to be terrorized. Indeed, the threat of terrorism is part of the new normal in the post-9/11 world. Second, one has to wonder if Osama bin Laden is laughing at us from a cave somewhere in Pakistan—watching governments react (or overreact) to generally vague threats of bad people wanting to do bad things. Even worse, Sidiqi may be real but what he’s telling us may be nothing more than disinformation.
Charles V. Peña is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute as well as a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project.
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