The unprecedented killing spree that left 33
dead, including the deranged gunman, at
Virginia Tech this week makes me wonder
whether it's time for the U.S. State
Department to scrap its travel warnings
about countries that it deems too dangerous
for Americans to visit.
It's not only a list that is seen
abroad as a symbol of U.S. hypocrisy,
but it's become ridiculous in the wake of
9/11 or Virginia Tech. Some of the capitals
on the U.S. ''off-limits'' list have not
seen incidents of violence of this magnitude
in recent years.
Hours after the Virginia Tech killings,
I looked at the State Department's Web site
to see its latest travel advisories. It
includes both ''travel warnings'' that are
issued ''when the State Department
recommends that Americans avoid a certain
country,'' and ''consular information
sheets,'' which report about crime and other
potential threats to U.S. citizens around
Under the list of countries the State
Department recommends Americans avoid
altogether are Israel, Haiti and Colombia.
In the case of Colombia, it says that
''citizens of the United States and other
countries continue to be victims of threats,
kidnappings and other criminal acts,'' even
though ''violence in recent years has
decreased markedly in most urban areas,
including Bogota, Medellin, Barranquilla and
In the case of Israel, it says that
there is a continuing threat of suicide
bombings. ''The January 2006 and April 2006
suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, the December
2005 suicide bombing in Netanya and a
similar incident in Hadera in October 2005
are reminders of the precarious security
environment,'' it says.
But it so happens that this week's
killings at Virginia Tech were as deadly as
the worst recent incidents of violence in
Colombia or Israel.
In Colombia, the deadliest attack in
recent years was the February 2003 car bomb
that destroyed the posh social club El Nogal
in Bogota. It left a toll of 26 dead on the
night of the explosion, although the death
toll rose to 33 in the weeks that followed.
In Israel, none of the suicide bombings
referred to in the latest State Department
advisory reached the death toll we saw this
week in Virginia. Among the worst recent
mass killings in Israel were October 2004
attacks on two Sinai holiday resorts, which
left 32 dead.
Earlier this week, Colombia's Vice
President Francisco Santos told me that the
U.S. travel advisories are seen as an oddity
abroad. He noted that, ironically, many
people in Latin America see the United
States as an unsafe country where terrorists
killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11,
2001, and where deranged gunmen - with the
help of permissive gun laws - periodically
carry out mass killings.
''These advisories cause a terrible
damage to our countries, and are totally
inflexible,'' Santos said. ''In addition,
they create political resentment against the
Santos said the U.S. travel warnings are
also misleading: Colombia's capital has
dramatically reduced its crime rates, to the
point that it is lower than Washington's, he
Colombia reports 24 homicides per
100,000 people in Bogota in 2005, while the
FBI's latest report lists 35 homicides per
100,000 people in Washington that year.
State Department Bureau of Consular
Affairs spokesman Steve Royster told me that
several other countries, including Great
Britain and Canada, also issue foreign
The practice is part of the U.S.
government's mission to ''further our
highest objective in our post overseas,
which is to provide for the safety of U.S.
citizens abroad,'' he said.
Does it make sense for the United
States to warn Americans not to travel to
countries whose capitals are as safe - or
unsafe - as major U.S. cities?
Furthermore, does it make sense for the
U.S. government to spend billions in
economic aid to friendly countries such as
Colombia and Israel, and at the same time
shoot down their tourism industries?
I don't think so. Travel advisories
are a good idea, but they should be left for
non government organizations. Ideally,
America should once and for all begin to
strictly control gun sales.
In addition, the State Department
should ditch its travel advisory - or
include the United States among the
countries that are too dangerous to visit.
* ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Andres Oppenheimer is a
Latin America correspondent for the Miami
Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132;