Menu

Cause for Alarm?

First, I want to thank the people who warned me personally about heightened security in France. This post speaks is about the media and the State Department, not the people who thought of me. I thought I should make that clear in case there was any misunderstanding.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (which I have), you’ll know that Europe is at a heightened state of alert for terrorism attacks. I was informed by a few people that the State Department released a warning that Americans traveling abroad should be careful. Actually, that’s incorrect. I was informed that Europe was on alert and later learned that the State Department probably would be releasing an alert. A quick news search found countless articles about heightened security, new intelligence, and possible targets.

It occurred to me that we’ve seen a number of French soldiers around Paris dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles (with berets which just adds a level of bad-assery that’s hard to describe). Then I remembered the bomb scare a few weeks ago at the Eiffel Tour and a few more since. All at once, it seemed like things were getting dicey around here and we were possible targets.

It would be one thing if it was just us but Anna’s parents are here visiting us. Four obviously-American Americans wandering around Paris using French ranging from passable to barely comprehensible during a terror alert sounds like the start of a movie involving a kidnapping. We were thwarted at the Notre Dame tower (closed for security reasons but only for 90 minutes), warned in the Metro about suspicious behavior, and scared by a backpack. It seemed like this was turning into a very risky situation… but was it?

Tell an American that there’s a threat of terrorism and the first thing that comes to mind is a bomb, a plane, or the combination of the two. With all the talk over the years of what a rogue nuclear explosion could do, the bomb threat has gotten bigger, scarier, and “dirtier.” We have a rainbow of warning colors, a fear of unattended luggage, and automatic mistrust for people who look like terrorists (we all know what that means). In the end, we’re not any safer for our fear, just more stressed out.

Yesterday, Anna’s mom told me that they had killed 8 German nationals in Pakistan, thwarting what sounded like a very real plot to strike a major city in Europe. Problem solved, “good guys” win, and the world is safer. Yay. So what was all the noise about? What about the alerts and the soldiers and the tanks? What, there were tanks?!

Scary huh? Taken out of context, these two photos look like there is real trouble brewing. But the picture of the soldiers was taken weeks ago, long before these warnings came out. The tank was on a transport truck rolling through Reims, a dangerous place to be in the early 40’s but not so much now.

This morning, I decided to actually read the State Department warning for Americans in France:

The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to the potential for terrorist attacks in Europe. Current information suggests that al-Qa’ida and affiliated organizations continue to plan terrorist attacks.

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.

These groups are “continuing” to plan attacks, they have attacked public transportation and “tourist infrastructure” before, and watch out for planes and ships. So we’re not safe anywhere except, say, a boring neighborhood full of locals and away from any public transportation. I haven’t found anything like this in over 100 miles of walking around this city.

The problem with warnings like this, unspecific warnings without any clear instructions, are two-fold: (1) they’re not helping anybody and (2) they create a pervasive sense of fear. The warning is vague enough that someone’s ass is covered if something does go down and doesn’t contain enough information to help anyone be more safe.

Warning Americans to look out for unspecified terrorist threats in a city like Paris is akin to telling Parisians to look out for serial killers in a mall in Florida; everyone looks like a suspect and if a mass murder breaks out nearby, you’re more likely to be warned by the running and screaming people than you would be by the official warning. Unless, of course, you’re the first victim in which case a warning doesn’t do you much good.

If the end, the threat, according to the media, was a for a “Mumbai-style commando attack on civilians,” not a bomb or a plane. The vague warning released by the State Department mentioned nothing about this kind of attack or what to look out for, it just mentions al’Qa’da (which translates to “brown people” to many Americans), weapons (which, as we’re taught in the airport security line, could mean everything ranging from a plastic knife to a 3.13.5oz container of hair gel), and all the things you can’t get away from in Europe (planes, trains, and automobiles). Boy, maybe I should fly home… the threat level there is only elevated.

On a much lighter note… our time in Paris is coming to an end on the 15th and we’re both very conflicted about it. On one hand, it means we get to see somewhere new (on our way to Belgium with our friends from San Diego, Chris and Anna, then Toulon, then Ventimiglia, then unspecified locations in Germany, then Amsterdam, then New York). Paris takes a lot out of you – financially, physically, mentally – and we’re ready for a break. It also means we’re just a bit closer to our official return to Washington state which, I’ll be honest, I’m terribly excited for.

That said, Paris (well, France in general) has really captured our hearts. We’ve gotten so used to being able to drink a bottle of wine wherever it fancies us or take a short Metro ride to change the scenery completely. It’s been great not driving (though Anna braved Paris with a rental car recently… more on that soon!), great to walk everywhere, and just fantastic to have our foodie urges filled completely.

It will be a sad event for sure, leaving Paris, but there are wonderful things ahead of us, both in the near future and beyond. We’ll be back before too long… I imagine few people who have been here say goodbye forever.

Replies

Total: 1

Comments are temporarily closed, dealing with a spam issue ...


  1. chris

    October 8, 2010 at 8:03 pm  • 

    chris says:

    Great post! Lets look at what Mr Schneier said about terror alerts, waaay back in 2004.

    “A terrorist alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic, without giving people anything to do in response, is ineffective. Even worse, it echoes the very tactics of the terrorists. There are two basic ways to terrorize people. The first is to do something spectacularly horrible, like flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands of people. The second is to keep people living in fear.”

    http://www.schneier.com/essay-055.html

    Thank you Bruce for looking at reality and using logic in addressing the issue of terrorism.

Comments are closed.

"Policy"

If you've got something to say about the above, now is your time. I moderate for spam, relevance, and abuse but, aside from that, this is an open forum. I will not publish your email address but feel free to be anonymous. If you just have a general question or want to get in touch, my contact form is the best place for that. Thanks in advance!