Monday, December 22, 2003


I give up on trying to ignore post-9/11 topics on this blog for the sake of diversity. It’s fun, easy and seems to be the most important issue of our time -- following certainly the defining moment of the 2000s, although the decade is young yet.

The U.S. terror level is at Ernie.

According to a news conference yesterday, “the danger of an attack in the ‘near term,’ possibly in the United States, was ‘perhaps greater now than at any point since Sept. 11, 2001.’” The speaker was Tom Ridge, secretary of Homeland Security, quoted in The New York Times. Note that there’s “danger” in the “near term” “possibly in the United States” that’s “perhaps greater” than it has been for quite some time.

Or it’s not greater. And the attack might come in Kuala Lumpur. And it might not happen at all, just as previous alerts have been raised without terrorist strikes following, although it’s impossible to say whether our level of alert has deterred terrorists from acting.

But if our alerts have deterred attacks, they probably won’t in the future. The system cries wolf, especially as it hasn’t been below yellow (the midrange) since its creation, and creates no sustained interest among average U.S. citizens. Mainly it seems to provide newspapers, fewer all the time, with front-page warnings that also fail to stir people on the street. Ho-hum. Business as usual. Even U.S. stock markets rose, amid all this terror, almost across the board.

The system has taught the public that vigilance is unnecessary, although demands for security in places such as airlines or stadiums also show that vigilance is irritating.

How can it be otherwise? The system is as meaningless as Ridge’s oral warning and as confusing as Starbuck’s “tall,” “grande” and “venti” system (in which tall is small, grande is medium and venti is Italian. It means “twenty,” as in ounces, but a cold and hot venti are different sizes, with a cold venti holding 24 ounces).

For those unclear on our system, it breaks down as follows:

Green is a low risk of terrorist attacks; blue is a general risk; yellow is a significant risk; orange is a high risk; and red is a severe risk.

So there’s never not a risk of an attack, but sometimes there’s a general sense one’s coming. Up the scale, in the widely used sense of the words, there’s no difference between “significant” and “high,” and in the dictionary sense of the words, “significant” just means the risk is meaningful, important or fairly large -- indistinguishable, variously, from a general or high risk -- and “high” means serious or grave.

So does “severe.”

Homeland Security would do well to trim its alert levels to three: low, medium and high, and announce only high alerts to the public.

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