The Ineffectiveness of Vague Security Warnings
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. Unless we are talking about weapons of mass destruction, the chances of being hit by a car while crossing the street are still greater than the chances of being on the one plane or one subway car that comes under attack. Besides, nobody living or working in a large European city (or even a small one) can indefinitely avoid coming within close proximity of “official and private” structures affiliated with U.S. interests—a Hilton hotel, an Apple computer store—not to mention subways, trains, airplanes, boats, and all other forms of public transportation.
Second, we do nothing because if the language is that vague, nobody is really sure why the warning has been issued in the first place. Obviously, if the U.S. government knew who the terrorists were and what they were going to attack, it would arrest them and stop them. If it can’t do any better than “tourist infrastructure” and public transportation, it doesn’t really know anything at all.
In truth, the only people who can profit from such a warning are the officials who have issued it in the first place. If something does happen, they are covered. They warned us, they told us in advance, they won’t be criticized or forced to resign. And if nothing happens, we’ll all forget about it anyway.
Except that we don’t forget about it. Over time, these enigmatic warnings do al-Qaida’s work for them, scaring people without cause. Without so much as lifting a finger, Osama Bin Laden disrupts our sense of security and well-being. At the same time, they put the U.S. government in the position of the boy who cried wolf. The more often general warnings are issued, the less likely we are to heed them. We are perhaps unsettled or unnerved, but we don’t know what to do. So we do nothing—and wish that we’d been told nothing, as well.
I wrote much the same thing in 2004, about the DHS’s vague terrorist warnings and the color-coded threat advisory system.
EDITED TO ADD (10/13): Another article.
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