Terror Alerts are Useless

What’s the point of the State Department warning us about possible al Qaeda attacks in Europe? Matthew Yglesias on the dangers of blind panic—and why the government needs to tell us what these alerts really cost.

The State Department did something a bit funny Sunday morning and put out a travel alert warning people who might be thinking of going to Europe that al Qaeda might kill them if they do so. “Terrorists,” their release helpfully clarified, “may elect to use a variety of means and weapons and target both official and private interests.” Scary stuff.

Meanwhile, I was up early Sunday morning and I like to travel so I thought I’d try an experiment and ask my Twitter followers if anyone was canceling European travel plans and wanted to hand some free tickets and/or hotel rooms over to me. But unfortunately for me, the American people (or at least the 14,000 or so who follow me on Twitter) are too sensible for that. I’m a bit sad I didn’t score my free trip, but of course it’s the alternative scenario that was really terrifying. What if tens of thousands of people really had canceled their business travel or tourism plans, disrupting hundreds of millions of dollars worth of commerce? It would have been among the greatest coups in the history of al Qaeda, and achieved without a shot. All of which raises the question: What on earth are the pointing of these alerts, and why on earth can’t the government get out of the business of self-defeating cautionary notes that are disconnected from any conceivable course of action?

Terrorism hurts us most not when it kills people, but when it uses our own clouded judgment as a force multiplier that inspires us to weaken ourselves in a thousand ways big and small.

Bruce Riedel: The Latest Al Qaeda AlarmsAt this late date in history, everyone’s sick of the “if X, then the terrorists win” formulation. But there was wisdom in those early clichés. Terrorism is a classic weapon of the weak. An organization that couldn’t possibly survive a direct confrontation with the Belgian army, to say nothing of the awesome might of the United States armed forces, seeks instead to engage in spectacular attacks on soft targets in hopes of inspiring fear and irrational responses. For example, we might shut down transatlantic travel over the fear that if you spend Tuesday afternoon wandering around a European city, you might get killed by terrorists.

And guess what? You really might!

But shit happens in life. I was robbed at knifepoint in Amsterdam one time and held up on multiple occasions by guys with guns, some of whom were supposed to be police officers, in Russia. In principle those confrontations could have turned deadly. And if it’s possible to rob people then I suppose al Qaeda could launch the ”Mumbai-style attack” (i.e., guys with guns shoot a bunch of people) we’re afraid of. But though it’s sad to say it, people get shot in the United States all the time. At 4.3 murders per 100,000 people we’re far from the deadliest country on earth but running a much more murderous society than anything in Western Europe. Go visit Santa Claus in Finland this Christmas ( it’s lovely) and your odds of being murdered drop by a third relative to life in the USA.

And that’s the European Union’s most kill-happy country. Americans are significantly more than twice as likely to be murdered than residents of the major European population centers such as Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, and Spain. Meanwhile, although it’s true, as the State Department observed, that “terrorists have targeted and attacked subway and rail systems, as well as aviation and maritime services,” the number of Westerners killed throughout al Qaeda’s history is dwarfed by the annual death toll of car wrecks in the United States. So unless you’re planning on spending the rest of your life cowering under the kitchen table, the Paris Metro is about as safe a place to be as any.

The point is that policy and discourse around terrorism are dangerously lacking in perspective or any kind of reasonable cost-benefit analysis. People die of nut allergies every year, but we don’t enact a nationwide ban on nuts; it would be insane and incredibly annoying. But nobody in office seems interested in running the math on what kind of safety modern-day airport liquid bans and shoe-removal procedures are buying us or at what cost. No tradeoffs are discussed between fighting terrorism and fighting ordinary crime, or trying to reduce motorcycle accidents (which kill many more people than 9/11 each and every year), or simply the wealth and convenience gained by hassle-free air travel. But terrorism hurts us most not when it kills people, but when it uses our own clouded judgment as a force multiplier that inspires us to weaken ourselves in a thousand ways big and small.

Rolling back the post-9/11 atmosphere of perpetual panic will probably take a long time and hard work. But ultimately it’s necessary, and getting the job done will be the only true victory against terrorism. A good place to start would be with these travel alerts. If the State Department doesn’t have any specific action it wants people to take, why not leave well enough and just let people go about their business?

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.