On Monday, the State Department issued a worldwide travel alert for American citizens, warning them of possible threats from terrorists in foreign countries. This doesn't mean anything bad is about to happen: Similar alerts have been issued at least three times in the past four years without a major attack on Americans following.
However, because this particular alert doesn't specify any specific countries or regions that are at higher risk of future attacks, it sure feels like the State Department is telling you to convert your house into a survivalist bunker and never leave:
The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to possible risks of travel due to increased terrorist threats. Current information suggests that [ISIS], al-Qa’ida, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions. These attacks may employ a wide variety of tactics, using conventional and non-conventional weapons and targeting both official and private interests. This Travel Alert expires on February 24, 2016.
Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq. Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis...In the past year, there have been multiple attacks in France, Nigeria, Denmark, Turkey, and Mali. [ISIS] has claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Russian airliner in Egypt.
Noting that "extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services," the alert warns Americans to "exercise vigilance when in public places or using transportation." Moreover, the alert cautions, Americans should "be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowed places."
So, in short: Be afraid wherever you're traveling, however you're traveling, and try to avoid being in public. Yikes!
The alarming and nonspecific tone generated no shortage of mockery from observers of world politics:
"We don't know when. We don't know where. But something could happen. ... Carry on. Carefully." https://t.co/fMCT9ubRZr— Hayes Brown (@HayesBrown) November 23, 2015
stay in indoors, don't answer your phones, avoid driving and/or walking, light breathing is okay when alone https://t.co/PXSMwBYZGw— Arash Karami (@thekarami) November 23, 2015
So pretty much just be afraid, then. https://t.co/JTAIFPdJoC— Kate Cronin-Furman (@kcroninfurman) November 23, 2015
I asked the State Department what it was hoping to accomplish with this alert, given the general lack of specificity. Here's what a State Department official told me via email:
We issued a travel alert to inform US citizens of the current threat level, and remind travelers to be especially vigilant during the holiday season and at sites frequented by tourists. A Travel Alert usually is used for situations that are expected to be of finite duration or affect only part of a given country or, in some instances, region of the world.
That's fair enough: It does, as the official said, specify a time limit on the warning.
But past worldwide travel alerts have been more specific about locations and threat type. In 2011, the State Department warned people to avoid mass demonstrations at countries with high levels of anti-Americanism after the Osama bin Laden killing. Another warning, in 2013, specified high levels of concern about an al-Qaeda attack in the Middle East and North Africa. A 2014 alert singled out, per the Huffington Post, "hotels, shopping areas, places of worship and schools" as areas where the threat is especially high.
It's probably worth noting that terrorism kills very, very few Americans every year — in 2011, 17 US citizens were killed by terrorist attacks, and that's fairly consistent with what we've seen since 9/11. For perspective, roughly as many Americans were killed that year by their own furniture falling on them.