You've heard parents say it a million times as the kids run out the door with their sleds, skateboards or car keys. You've probably said it yourself: "Be careful."
Clever kids sometimes ask, "Careful about what?"
To which worried parents might answer, "Everything."
Viewed in this light, the State Department's recent alert to U.S. citizens in Europe seems more of a ritualistic expression of concern than a specific instruction.
But as sincere as it might be, it doesn't do much good in the practical sense. Telling kids with skateboards to be careful is a bit like telling tourists to "adopt appropriate safety measures" against random acts of violence. Newton's laws and terrorists can strike at any time.
It didn't take long for commentators and travel professionals to realize that there isn't a whole lot that travelers can do beyond the usual common-sense precautions.
But as frustrating as the State Department's advice might be for individual travelers, it also places an awkward burden on the hospitality industry. If you're a hotelier or tour operator, what do you do differently? In the absence of any information about a specific threat, all you can offer is reassurance, even though you have nothing to base it on.
The government seems to believe that we're better off for all this. If we are, it's not by much.