It had been quiet for so long. And then, last week, the US issued a 'travel advisory' - not quite an alert, but it had the same dramatic effect - to its citizens in Europe, asserting that a co-ordinated al-Qaida attack on the transport networks and tourist sites of major West European cities could be expected soon. The Europeans had different ideas about how to respond: copycat warnings were issued by Sweden and the UK; the Germans said there was nothing to worry about; the French said Britain was unsafe. Following hoax bomb threats, the Eiffel Tower was evacuated twice in two weeks. In Brussels, there was consternation about the mixed messages. After the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in the spring, when the ensuing travel chaos cost national economies billions, it was felt that what was missing in these matters was a centralised approach. The Belgian interior minister, Annemie Tertelboom, said Europe needed to 'frame better the message coming from our continent'. Governments should seek advice from the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen), the EU's post-9/11 intelligence hub, before issuing public warnings. 'It is very important,' she said, 'because in my country we use levels one, two, three and four, while others use colours.' She meant it's important to ensure that - whatever language they speak - people are scared to exactly the right degree.
LRB 21 October 2010 | PDF Download