Worldwide, Americans weigh the rising risks of being abroad
VIENNA, Austria (AP) — Austria’s carefree capital is known for bursts of Mozart, not machine-gun fire.
But even in tranquil Vienna, where the U.S. Embassy closed briefly last month and a man was detained on suspicion of plotting an attack, many of the city’s 7,000 American expatriates confess they’re on guard.
With good reason: In many parts of the world, it’s dangerous to be an American abroad. Around the globe, jittery U.S. expatriates and other Westerners are taking extra precautions and rethinking their routines amid a growing realization that security is just an illusion.
“I’d never put an American flag T-shirt on my son and send him downtown. He might as well have a target on his back,” said Kathy Iovieno, a Massachusetts native and married mother of two in Vienna. “Sometimes we even tell the kids to speak German rather than English on the streets so they’re not so obviously American.”
Last week, the U.S. State Department ordered embassy dependents and nonessential staff in Pakistan to leave. It also issued a global warning saying it continues to receive credible reports that extremists are planning additional terrorist acts against Americans worldwide.
The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon left many Americans with the sense that anything can happen anywhere, anytime. For those who live overseas, events continue to reinforce the feeling.
On Thursday a car bombing near the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, killed nine people, all Peruvians. Earlier that week, a grenade assault killed two American worshippers at an international church in Islamabad.
“When something like that happens things are never going to be the same,” said Mark Green, an American oil company executive in New Delhi who used to attend the church when he was based in Pakistan.
In the Arab world and other places where Americans are particularly at risk, the State Department urges simple precautions such as varying routes, avoiding the American “uniform” of jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and staying away from bars, restaurants and shopping malls where foreigners tend to congregate.
Elise Atkins and her family are taking that advice in Bosnia, where the U.S. Embassy has shut down amid reports that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida organization planned a devastating attack on Americans there.
Bosnian authorities last week raided an Islamic charity, seized weapons, plans for making bombs, booby-traps and bogus passports, and arrested the group’s Bosnian head. In October, they arrested six Algerians suspected of plotting attacks on U.S. interests, including a man believed to have been bin Laden’s top lieutenant in Europe.
“We won’t go to international clubs or hangouts anymore, and we’ve decided not to wear shirts that have American logos on them,” said Atkins, 40, of Austin, Texas, who works for an economic development agency in Sarajevo.
Still, there’s plenty of stoicism. It’s a kind of badge of honor among many Americans who live internationally and tend to shrug off risks and government travel warnings.
Dave Alford, an Irishman who owns The Harp, Sarajevo’s hottest expatriate watering hole, said there were a lot more empty bar stools for a few weeks after Sept. 11 and when the U.S. Embassy closed. But not everyone was scared away, he said. “There are always those with the mentality that you can be hit by a bus.”
Ron Mullers, an executive from Hawaii who has lived for 30 years in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, concedes he’s taking extra precautions. Indonesia was the site of big protests against the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan and one of more than a dozen countries where U.S. authorities and officials overseas say they have uncovered plots against American targets or U.S. citizens.
But Mullers, 48, is determined not to let an unseen threat disrupt his life.
“Business people are always coming here and asking if it’s safe. I think it’s safer here than walking in downtown New York,” he said.
In Colombia, many Americans avoid driving on rural roads to avoid being kidnapped by rebels who set up roadblocks in the countryside, but they’re no more targeted than the locals.
Alicia Meno, a Chicago native and a school librarian in Bogota, said she feels safe, though she has cut back on trips outside the capital because of intensifying guerrilla activity.
“I take the same precautions I took growing up in the big city,” said Meno, 30. “Look over your shoulder, don’t walk alone at night, keep your money tucked in — just being really observant all the time in the street.”
Some places that might seem hostile to Americans simply aren’t. An example is China, where official anti-American rhetoric boils over from time to time, but terrorism concerns are virtually nil and U.S. citizens have no reason or precedent to fear for their safety.
Malaysia has arrested 24 people allegedly tied to al-Qaida and suspected of plotting to amass explosives and blow up the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Singapore. But the country’s Muslims preach tolerance, and Americans tend to feel safe.
“You think about security, and we do have security guards, of course, but how much can you really guard against?” said the Rev. Bert Schoneveld, pastor of St. Andrew’s International Church in Kuala Lumpur. “You can’t have security like an airport, and you don’t want to just alarm people.”
Back in Vienna, where a terrorist attack would have been almost inconceivable before Sept. 11, Diane Carlsgaard still plans a family vacation in Egypt, though she’ll take a charter flight directly to her destination to avoid flying through Cairo.
“I’m more nervous getting on planes now, but I’m still getting on them,” said Carlsgaard, a Wisconsin native whose husband works for the United Nations.
“Terrorism is so random now — how can you not live your life?”