Opinion: Why a worldwide travel alert is useless

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The US State Department has issued a nearly unprecedented “worldwide travel alert” for Americans amid concerns that terror groups are planning more attacks after the recent Paris massacres. But a worldwide travel alert comes with a massive, giant problem.

It’s useless. Absolutely, completely useless.

The State Department is warning you about absolutely nothing, and absolutely everything, all at the same time. The alert is not location specific. It’s not event specific. The alert does not instruct Americans to avoid travel. It ‘urges vigilance when in public places or when using public transportation.’

The alert doesn’t even warn traveling Americans. If a traveler hasn’t heard about the Paris massacres in the mainstream news, it’s highly unlikely they’ll bother to look up travel warnings from the US State Department. Put frankly, that ship has long since sailed.

So in the absence of anything specific, essentially the alert says, “be careful if you’re outside. Or maybe sometimes inside, too.”

In other words, it accomplishes absolutely nothing except create a lot of very frantic headlines as the world media frantically pump out byline after byline. It will attract nominal attention from a bored public, who will then file it under ‘ignore’ since it provides zero useful information.

It has no legal standing. Travel insurance is not cancelled. Flights will still continue, hotels still accept bookings, and tour groups will still take pictures of old landmarks while eating overpriced ice cream.

So it may be worth conceding the travel alert has served one purpose. At least now, someone at the State Department gets to feel important because they warned the public about…. well… something.

There are so many ways to improve upon a worldwide announcement that listing them would take hours. But at the very least, offer specifics.

The current alert manages to create a laundry list of recent attacks without any hint as to regions of the world that merit more attention than others.

I’ll be the first to concede the next attack could happen in Brussels, or it could happen in Burlington, Vermont. But if there are concerns about a specific area, it is irresponsible not to mention what those concerns may be. As it currently exists, this is an alert about air.

Creating an alert about everything and nothing at the same time really only accomplishes one thing – it desensitizes the audience you need to reach when you REALLY need to reach them.

Much like the fable of the boy who cried wolf, a weary public will simply ignore future travel warnings.

So there may be a second, and highly unintended purpose here. By continuing to create useless warnings, that purpose will be to sacrifice innocent lives for the sake of bureaucratic and political expediency.