On Terror Alert Levels

In the United States we have the much-maligned color-coded National Threat Advisory level, which has basically moved back and forth between ‘Elevated’ (yellow) and ‘High’ (orange) since it was established. Other countries have similar systems with various nuances, but they’re all apparently designed to give you a general idea of how likely you are to be blown up by a terrorist on a given day.

I can’t figure out what purpose they’re supposed to serve. As best as I can tell, they’re just a kind of ‘general information’ deal to let us know when there’s an increased risk of terror attacks, but I’m not sure what we’re expected to do about that. Invariably, we are told when the threat goes up that we should just go about our business like normal. Right now, threat levels in Europe are up and the U.S. State Department is warning U.S. citizens that al-Qaeda is planning attacks in Europe . . . yet, at the same time, State Dept. officials are saying, “We are not, repeat not, advising Americans not to go to Europe. We’re not saying don’t visit major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments.”

So Europe is dangerous and at immediate risk of terror attacks, but we should go there anyway and not change any plans. Clear as mud.

On one hand, I appreciate the government keeping us informed. It’s our government, after all, and we have a right to know what’s going on. But on the other (more reasonable) hand, they really haven’t told us anything . . . and I respect that the government has to keep certain national security matters secret from the public. But since they haven’t told us anything, and since they probably can’t tell us very much anyway, why don’t they just keep it quiet? What good does it do to get people worked up over something they can have no impact on either way?

See, here’s the problem. If the government issues an alert and nothing happens, then people pay a little less attention to alerts in the future and lose faith in their value. Meanwhile, if a terror attack happens and the government hasn’t issued an alert, then we figure the government really doesn’t know what’s going on and—once again—we lose faith in their value. So far, these things seem to be happening a lot more than the various national governments getting things right with their terror alerts. Maybe we should just get rid of useless terror alert systems which were, from the beginning, more of a ‘feel good’ anti-terror mechanism than a real one anyway.

And when it comes to these kinds of specific travel alerts, well, somebody should tell the State Dept. to keep their mouths shut until they have something useful to tell us.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.