The State Department wants you to be afraid of everything

If you are an American living abroad in an unstable country, it's not unusual for the local U.S. embassy to send you updates about the security situation. The advice is pretty basic, and largely useless -- be aware of your surroundings, avoid large protests, consider delaying travel. Yesterday, however, the State Department took a different tack: It warned Americans that terrorists could be lurking behind any corner. At any time. Across the globe.

"Current information suggests that al-Qaida...continue[s] to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. interests in multiple regions, including Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East," the State Department wrote yesterday in a "Worldwide Caution" alert.

So, be careful when traveling -- well, anywhere, basically. But perhaps the U.S. government could at least tell its citizens where they will be most at risk? Here's what the State Department says about that: Targets could include "high-profile sporting events, residential areas, business offices, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, schools, public areas, and other tourist destinations both in the United States and abroad where U.S. citizens gather in large numbers, including during holidays."

Now, you probably shouldn't be traveling anywhere if this sort of advice is news to you. But let's assume there's a novice explorer out there who stumbles across this State Department warning and takes it to heart. What will he see as the primary threats that he will face as he embarks on his journey?

In Europe, the first thing he reads is: "Current information suggests that al-Qaida...continue[s] to plan terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western interests." In Africa, al Qaeda is also the first threat -- after that, pirates. In South and Central Asia, al Qaeda again. And in the Middle East, you guessed it, al Qaeda.

This isn't just overly broad to the point of being useless, it's actually a wildly distorted account of the threats Americans face abroad. Take Egypt, the country I call home. There is no shortage of radicalism here: The head of al Qaeda, a product of Cairo's most virulent strain of Islamist extremism, grew up a few neighborhoods over. And yet, a foreigner is far more likely to be hurt or killed in the city's insane traffic, mugged by a thief, or caught up in the running clashes between protesters and police. Fear of roving al Qaeda terrorists doesn't enter the picture.

So be careful out there, travelers. Just not for the reasons they tell you. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Passport

Introducing the 2013 Gelber Prize finalists: today's nominee, Anne Applebaum

Over the past few days, we've been sharing interviews with the authors nominated for this year's Lionel Gelber Prize. A literary award for the year's best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs.

The award is sponsored by the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto in cooperation with Foreign Policy. The interviews are conducted by Rob Steiner, former Wall Street Journal correspondent and director of fellowships in international journalism at the Munk School.  

Yesterday, the prize board announced the five books that had been selected for the prize shortlist. They are: 

Next up on our list of interviews is journalist Anne Applebaum. Here's the jury citation for Iron Curtain:

"In Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum captures the demeaning claustrophobia of Soviet-dominated regimes in Central Europe after 1945. With devastating precision, Applebaum documents the subordination of every autonomous social force in these countries by a paranoid and greedy power. Rarely has the fragility of liberalism been more deftly portrayed."

Listen to the interview here