Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Government | World

October 6, 2010

If You Say Something, See Something

An American in Prague asks the US State Department for advice.

Konstantin Kakaes

Dear Secretary Clinton—

I'm a loyal American citizen, and since I'm in Europe right now, in Prague actually, I wanted to let you know that I got the travel alert the Department of State issued on October 3. I am, as you suggested, taking every precaution to be aware of my surroundings, and am adopting appropriate safety measures. To tell you the truth, since I pay particular attention to your very useful website,, I was already maintaining a "high level of vigilance," as you recommended in your August 12th Worldwide Caution.

Photo of Prague's Golden Lane by <a href=''>flydime</a>.
"If I'd known about the Travel Alert, and not just the Worldwide Caution, before I left, I would've been more careful."

Photo of Prague's Golden Lane by flydime.

While I was being vigilant, I noticed several suspicious things, and thought I had better let you know about them. (What's the use of vigilance without speaking up?) As I learned on the subway in New York, if I see something, I'll say something. In the center of Prague's Old City, where my hotel is, there appear to be a large number of organized groups making some sort of reconnaissance. They each have leaders who marshal them, like military officers, brandishing large umbrellas, and are well-equipped with elaborate cameras. (Some of them indeed have more than one camera.) I'm not sure what it is they are trying to do, but they seem organized. I thought you'd want to know. I'm not convinced they are up to anything nefarious, but since you warned in your brochure "A Safe Trip Abroad" that "criminals use ingenious ploys" I thought, hey, better safe than sorry. So I'm letting you know. My suspicion is that they are groups of tourists, who are pooling their resources to hire indigenous guides, who know the local history and mores. But that's just what a group of evildoers would do, right, to fit in?

I was walking down Vêzeñska street earlier today when I saw a blue van with an orange stripe, marked "TelekomunikačnÍ Pohotovost" (this was on an orange stripe going down the side). It was empty, and what can I say, empty vans parked near buildings make me suspicious. It was in an area of heavy "tourist infrastructure" which you warned might be attacked, so I thought you might want to check it out.

As I was walking away from the van (though, as you warned, I didn't use any "short cuts or narrow alleys") I noticed several individuals, and at least one pair of people, pacing in front of buildings, holding burning objects in their hands. They looked like some sort of fuse to me, though I'm no expert. Maybe this was the sort of "dry run" I've heard so much about? They looked to me like the sort of thing I'd seen in old movies—some kind of cancer-causing device. Is this biological warfare? I'm not sure, but you'll know what to do.

I could see all of this pretty well, because I was wearing my glasses. I've got to confess a few places where I've fallen short of your advice for prudent travelers. I didn't bring an extra pair of glasses, so I hope nothing happens to my pair. I did make sure not to bring a gun or buy any cocaine, as you warned, so I'm safe on that score. (And I did leave my "irreplaceable family objects" at home, as you suggested—thanks for that, because I was going to bring the handful of photographs we have of my grandparents.) I did not, before leaving on this trip, get my affairs in order at home. I know I really should have made up my will and given someone insurance documents if anything happens—it was careless of me to think, "Hey, I'm just going to Europe, I won't give a friend copies of my insurance documents." If I'd known about the Travel Alert, and not just the Worldwide Caution, before I left, I would've been more careful. I also definitely would've asked my travel agent, as you say, about the comparative safety records of the various airlines that fly to Europe. (Is Austrian Airlines okay? I was safe on the way here, but if you could let me know before I fly back, I'd appreciate it.)

There's one score on which I blatantly didn't follow your advice, and, what can I say, I'm going to have to live with the consequences. I've been using cash—Euros, in Austria and Germany, and now Czech crowns. I know I should have brought traveler's checks, as you suggest, to be on the safe side. Had I brought them, I would certainly have followed your advice to only change them as I need currency.

Don't worry, I haven't done everything wrong. Believe me when I tell you I didn't wear any expensive-looking jewelry. And I have, as you suggested, travelled light, and avoided fanny packs (and, for that matter, handbags). A couple of times I had a free afternoon and wanted to just wander around the city, taking in whatever I saw. So I'm afraid I disregarded your advice to always "act as if you know where you are going," even when I was lost. I will be more purposeful in future.

I'm going to let you go now (I should probably, like you suggest, go count the doors between my hotel room and nearest exit), but I've got a final confession to make. I was walking around today carrying a book called Nuclear Safeguards, Security, and Nonproliferation. It's a thick tome, but I'm reading it for the very work that took me to Europe in the first place, researching the future of nuclear energy as part of a journalism fellowship. In fact, I've been so busy working, that I haven't had time to shave. So, just so you know, if anyone reports a bearded guy walking around Prague with a book about nuclear weapons, don't worry too much about it; it was probably just me.

I know I'll rest easier once the Travel Alert expires on January 31, 2011. I'm counting the days. Thanks for alerting me to the "potential for terrorist attacks in Europe." It'll definitely change how I go about my trip.

Konstantin Kakaes

PS: By the way, if you think this alert will spare you from criticism in the tragic event that a terrorist act does occur in Europe, because you warned us all beforehand, that's so sad it makes me want to cry.

Konstantin Kakaes

Konstantin Kakaes is a fellow of the International Reporting Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, DC.

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Article by Konstantin Kakaes

Konstantin Kakaes is a fellow of the International Reporting Project, a non-profit journalism organization based in Washington, DC.

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