Wednesday, March 03, 2004


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By William Fisher

There has never been a shortage of foolishness in government. But America’s post 9/11 color-coded terror index has to be high on the most-foolish list. Here’s why:

One of America’s new Homeland Security gurus testified before Congress the other day that there are three things the US public should do when terror alerts go from, say, yellow to orange. They are: (1) be vigilant (2) be prepared (3) go about enjoying life as usual. But the spokesman for this new mega-department was a tad short on details. For example:

What are we supposed to be ‘vigilant’ about? Strangers hanging about our neighborhoods? Unattended boxes in the company mailroom? A student from Egypt moving into the apartment next to yours?

What are we supposed to be prepared for? Attacks using biological, chemical or, heaven forefend, nuclear weapons? A dirty bomb in a suitcase? And just how are we supposed to prepare ourselves for these different kinds of calamities? Build underground shelters like some of us did in the 1950s Cold War days? Stock up on canned goods and water to put in the cellar? Make sure our first aid kits are up-to-date?

Finally, once our color coded anxiety has sent us all rushing around in search of prescriptions for Prozac, we are counseled to go about our normal lives (“or the terrorists will win”). Right!

American reactions to terror alert codes vary, but by and large the country has responded with underwhelming indifference. My own admittedly unscientific survey of friends and colleagues elicited these comments:

“I would only pay attention if I heard there was a red alert (an attack in progress)”, said a social worker. “I can’t live my life in a perpetually freaked out condition,” commented a college student. A mother of two said, “I have stopped watching the news on television. These color alerts are meaningless.” According to a businessman who travels overseas frequently: “I postponed some business trips after 9/11, but got back in the air a month later. I read the State Department’s travel advisories before I fly and don’t pay any attention to the color of the threat level.” A dentist said on the eve of a vacation, “If I paid attention to the color of the day, I’d never go anywhere.” Another friend said, “I commute to New York City every day from New Jersey, which means I have to drive over the George Washington Bridge. I remember doing that the day the threat level was raised from yellow to orange, and I didn’t even see any increased police presence at all.” Said an economist colleague: “I am weary of threat levels that don’t tell you what they’re based on or anything specific you can do about them.”

The reasons for these attitudes are not all that difficult to figure out. First, the public cannot be expected to maintain mega levels of anxiety over extended periods while “going about their lives as usual.” Second, people in the general public are clueless about what they should actually do in almost any emergency, let alone a biological or chemical attack. Third, first aid kits and stored canned goods and water would be totally useless against the kinds of attacks Homeland Security is talking about.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the terror alert system should never have been directed at the general public. If bureaucrats’ comfort levels are somehow helped by designer colors, they should be used only as tools for first responders – law enforcement, firefighters, EMS specialists.

These professionals, we can only pray, will know what specific actions to take if tragedy strikes. Hopefully, they will be able to communicate with one another on their walkie-talkies, access the same terrorist databases, use compatible computers, and have all the personnel and technology they need.

Congress has not yet seen fit to give them the money they need to really take this job on. And the President’s new budget doesn’t offer much hope that the Feds are really concerned about helping first responders. Meanwhile, financially strapped cities are being forced to close down firehouses and other vital services – the very services the country would need most if terrorists strike again.