« Previous | Main | Next »

On air: Are you more scared because of the terror alerts?

Ben Sutherland Ben Sutherland | 18:06 UK time, Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Soldier by the Eiffel Tower


UPDATE:  BBC's Frank Gardner has a Q & A on the latest about the terror alerts.


Japan has become the latest country to issue a travel warning about travelling to Europe. The fear is that al-Qaeda is planning to attack cities on the continent.

In particular, people have been urged to be vigilant when using public transport or visiting tourist sites - indeed, the Eiffel Tower has been evacuated twice in recent weeks.

The US government has warned its citizens to stay away from crowded places in Europe. Critics there say the terror alerts are an "October surprise" - a news event with the potential to influence the outcome of an election.

Certainly, comments German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said there was no concrete evidence of an imminent attack and "no reason to be alarmist at this time".

Is the US government in particular manipulating the terror threat level for its own ends?

The Dawn News thinks so, describing it as;

"[An] artificial and cynical ploy to scare Americans to once again put their trust in government by waving the familiar bogeyman of the external threat."

Chad Pergram on Fox News would seem to agree:

How is it that the U.S. issues a cryptic terrorism alert about travel to Europe less than a month before the most-pivotal, midterm election in years and barely a politician even twitches? Better yet, with control of the House teetering on the brink and the Senate in play, why hasn't someone tried to blame one side or the other about ginning up terrorism fears for political gain immediately prior to an election? I mean wasn't that what Democrats accused the Bush Administration of doing right before the 2004 political conventions?

Certainly, one problem with such a wide-ranging warning - effectively saying that there is a need for concern across an entire continent - is that it is so vague.

So in cities across a continent of 731,000,000 people, these terror alerts will mean more tourist landmarks being sealed off, more security threats at airports, and more stations being evacuated.

And yet whatever plans al-Qaeda do have will likely involve hardly any of these places.

This, as the economists Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dunbar have noted, is precisely why terrorism is so effective. The fear of it comes with a huge cost to society, even though the risk of being involved in such an attack is minimal; the average American is 575 times more likely to commit suicide than to die as a victim of terrorism.

One example: Richard Reid, the British man who attempted to blow up a plane with explosives hidden in his footwear, is the reason we have to remove our trainers and boots and at airports. A man whose IQ barely exceeded the size of the shoes with which his attack completely failed costs, in accccumulating time queuing, removing and retying footwear, 1,065 years. And that's just in America, and that's just in a year.

Now, there are concerns that the latest terror warnings could harm Europe's economy. And all this without al-Qaeda having to actually do anything.

There are further consequences too - such as the impact on relations with immigrant Muslim communities in these countries.

As levels of terror threat escalate, so, inevitably, do suspicions. As Delia Lloyd on Politics Daily says:

As rising fears of Muslim immigrant groups are pushing tensions so high in Sweden, Germany, France, and Britain that violence could erupt even if terrorists don't strike. At this point, Europe is a "powder keg."

So far the response to the warnings from travellers, however, seems to be to carry on. America's NBA teams, for example, are continuing their tour of the continent.

And yet, of course, the concern of any government is always to keep its citizens safe. The BBC's Nick Childs says:

These particular alerts are not meant to dissuade people from travelling, but there is a risk that they could do just that, by spreading unnecessary alarm. In that sense, they could be counter-productive. But defenders of the system say it is always a difficult balance in deciding how much information to publish, and when. And they say such warnings can also act as a deterrent to possible plotters.

This makes it a fine line to tread, as Mark Halperin of Time magazine points out:

With the coming holiday travel season, this is a tough job for the administration. They must juggle the normal need to keep citizens informed and safe without inciting panic or hurting tourism.

So are you worried by the raised terror threat? Have you been affected by the warnings - or will it not change your plans? And is making such a warning sensible practice - or does it do the potential attackers' job for them, by making people scared without them even having to attack?

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.