Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Is it safe?

I was pondering, this morning, the rather confusing signals regarding the threat of terrorist attacks (specifically, 'Mumbai-style commando attacks') in European cities. There they were, the American and British counter-terrorism sources, issuing their scary-sounding warnings (followed by press reports naming specific targets); on the other hand, Die Zeit, citing German 'security experts', says that the likelihood of an attack is no higher than it has already been and downplays the likelihood of specific warnings about particular places.

So, I'm with Anne Applebaum on this one:

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 the one issued on Sunday by the U.S. State Department and cited above: We do nothing.

We do nothing, first and foremost, because there is nothing 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 completely meaningless.

Speaking as a European living in Europe, though perhaps one with slightly more apocalyptic leanings than is generally common, I have pretty much been expecting some kind of new horror for years. And not just in those high-profile places that have been named in recent warnings: it was in 2006, after all, that two Jihadi scumbags would-be suitcase bombers were foiled only by their own incompetence in blowing up local commuter trains on their way from Cologne to Koblenz and Hamm.

One of the experts quoted by Die Zeit--the head of Saarland's state Office for the Protection of the Constitution--notes that there are several known potential terrorists who were raised in Germany and have had or are seeking out military training in Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere. (Though since the weekend --presuming the reports are correct--their number might now be slightly reduced.) Getting the weaponry here, he says, would 'not be difficult' and even only a few terrorists would be capable of committing some serious media-friendly mayhem.

I think this is probably true.

So, my view on these latest warnings is not driven by a lack of concern, and if there's an attack tomorrow morning I'll be horrified and outraged, certainly, but hardly surprised.

I also understand that governments are in a kind of damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't position on this issue; but, still, this kind of warning that, as Andrew puts it, 'something bad may happen somewhere' reminded me of our last trip to the US.

Spending a couple of hours in a Chicago departure lounge waiting to come back, we were treated to the endless loop of a recorded message informing us that 'today's threat level as determined by the Department of Homeland Security is...[pause for effect]...ORANGE.' What, exactly, this was supposed to impart to us--not least on the thirtieth repetition--is a mystery to me.

I just checked and at the moment it's still orange; at least that's true in the 'airline sector', elsewhere, it's the comparatively calm yellow, though I'm a bit stumped about where to draw the line between a 'high' and 'significant' threat of terror attack and how much comfort one might gain, say, from being 'only' at the former.

I can't see that such vague warnings serve any purpose.

Other than, perhaps, treating us to the spectacle of Lily Allen acting like a twit. (Auch auf Deutsch erhältlich.)

(Via Andrew, who seems to have been blatantly ignoring State Department advice about avoiding public spaces in European capitals and has brought back the photographic evidence to prove it. Like any good Texan, he has no fear.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Right, John, vague warnings of this kind don't make much practical sense.

It's part of the logicality, or rather illogicality, of the huge post-9/11 security apparatus to inculcate fear of the very threat it is meant to avert. A vicious, self-serving behavioral loop.

I am so much reminded of Orwell.