Acting on “credible intelligence,” on Feb. 7. the Homeland Security Council changed the level of terrorist threat from “yellow” to “orange.” As a result, for the last two weeks, the United States has stood at an elevated level of vigilance and people have gone about their lives with the added burden of a “high” alert.
The initial announcements about these threats came through a joint press conference, attended by Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge. Unfortunately, this press conference, and others that followed, seemed to be devoid of actual advice. Aside from duct tape and plastic bags, very little was addressed in terms of what the public could do.
This is not to say that alerts do nothing to increase security. Police, military personnel and fire fighters are all alerted and mobilized so that they can help counter the threat. Police departments activated their anti-terror policies and the Air Force began to fly more air combat patrols over major cities. Medical teams prepared for mass casualties and biochemical terrorism so they could take action and save lives. All this has significantly helped the nation, because in the event of another attack, our front lines will be better prepared.
In retrospect, however, it seems that only these groups can benefit from the threat notification. These groups have official roles in securing the nation, so when alerted, they know what to do and how to do it. The public, in contrast, has had to bear the knowledge of a threat it can neither understand nor protect against. Even though the government tells U.S. citizens to go about their lives as normal, many have found it hard to do so. In an attempt to protect the nation, the ridiculous color system only serves to panic an already jittery populace.
While it is vital that police and other officials move to high alert when necessary, going on national television and reminding all U.S. citizens that they need to be extra careful and that terrorists can strike at any time does nothing.
It seems logical that next time a new alert is necessary, the nation would be better served if alerts were passed down in a calm manner through departments, not with the media hoopla the government thinks will drum up support.
These movements up to the orange level, have turned out to be based on misinformation or extremely vague threats. This runs the risk of making the public less ready to act when a real disaster occurs. If the nation is continuously shuffled between various colors, people will eventually ignore legitimate threats.
The alert system has flaws that should be addressed It is not targeted at the correct segment of the nation – first responders – while it manages to scare and leave without recourse its main audience – the general public. The status quo serves only to upset the nation and limit preparedness in the case of real attacks, while running the long-term risk of making people complacent. Boys and public officials can only cry wolf so many times.