Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of State issued an unusual Europe-wide travel advisory, and U.S. counterterrorism officials, speaking off the record, were talking it up as an enormous new security risk for Europe. France evacuated the Eiffel Tower and staged identity checks at transit points. Germany, on the other hand, cautioned against overreaction, stressing that there was general information only, no specific information of a pending attack, certainly no dates or specific targets. This does not point to differing estimations of danger. The reactions are driven by different philosophies about how information should be cast when it is presented to the public.
The German philosophy, which is close to that of the United Kingdom and the New York City Police Department (explained by my friend Mike Shaheen here), runs something like this: the aim of terrorists is to instill fear and to disrupt lives. Therefore it is only doing the terrorists’ bidding when a government makes statements that generally spread anxiety without providing any specific guidance. The approach of these governments is thus to share the basic information but to downplay its significance (usually by stressing that the information is general, that it shows planning but that there is no specific information about an attack). They urge people to go about their lives and to report suspicious activity to the police. Quietly, law enforcement and intelligence agencies will follow up leads, interrogating individuals and making arrests. Generally speaking, however, the aim is to get a good look inside the terrorist cell and follow its threads from within, not moving too quickly. The theory is that, once alerted, the terrorists are less likely to reveal the full scope of their plans or their support network.
The approach that is still favored by the United States federal authorities and the French stresses the need for the state to share its sense of alarm with the public and then to take public measures that show its vigilance even when such measures are not likely to have a high payoff. Compared with its European allies, the United States has also been quick to “spring the trap.” That is, it often arrests individuals believed to be involved in a plot early on, giving up the opportunity to learn more by monitoring them. This has in the past been a point of some friction between Britain and the United States.
In general, I think the approach favored by the NYPD, Britain, and Germany is better. If the terrorists’ principal object is to paralyze a society with fear, why should the government play right into their hands? The government should share the basic information they have, but they should take care not to embellish or hype it. The media can be relied upon to do that all on their own.