It seems like everyday there are news conferences about intelligence picking up suspicious chatter and possible unspecified threats. Usually these briefings lead to a change in the Color-Coded Terror Alert chart. The colors green, blue, yellow, orange and red, represent and correlate with the increase in level of threat: low, guarded, elevated, high, and severe, respectively.
When the color-coded chart was first established, the level moved up and down so fast the entire nation suffered from terror whiplash. It alarms the public with warnings that are too vague to be useful, and besides, they never really outlined what actions should be taken by individual citizens when we are under each color. It became somewhat of a joke, and every time Homeland Security Adviser Tom Ridge warned us to be careful and Attorney General John Ashcroft told us to stay vigilant, Home Depot had a sale on duct tape. Then we would laugh at the story of the government that cried wolf. I like how Brian Doherty, the senior editor of Reason magazine, explained his view of the Color-Coded Terror Alert: “It’s like you should be consulting the roll of Lifesavers in your pocket as a little mnemonic device to remind you how frightened you’re supposed to be right now.”
Every time the level has been raised, no attacks have followed. We are all grateful that there have been no attacks, and we understand the old phrase “better to be safe than sorry.” But the frequent fluctuations in the terror alert are raising questions about the reliability of the underlying intelligence data. The U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that cities spent $2.6 billion on additional security costs since the September 11 attacks. Most of this funding is related to ‘code orange’ overtime costs for police and other emergency personnel. Because it does cost states and local governments hundreds of thousands of dollars every time the alert level is raised, I think we owe it to local governments to be more specific when possible. These warnings actually make America less safe, because every dollar spent on false threats is a dollar that can’t be spent arresting an actual threat to society such as a murderer, robber or rapist.
The solution is to replace the gimmicky color-coded system with one based on law enforcement needs rather than political posturing. Ridge has acknowledged the frustration of many with the alert system and says he wants a system of specific warnings when intelligence warrants it. Perhaps the Department of Homeland Security could make adjustments that could include alerts for certain regions or sectors of the economy. It was recently reported a drill held last month found that antibiotics in some cities could not be distributed and administered quickly enough under a terror attack using biological weapons. Should an actual attack of this nature happen, it could kill thousands. A homeland security spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.
It seems to me, effective or not, the administration is using the color-coded chart to make sure all of the bases are covered. If an attack were to be carried out, they can at least say that they warned us. I will say for the most part, it makes Americans feel safer and like the government is watching over them. But feeling safe is not enough for me. Like the example of the failed attack drill above, I would rather see results from something of that nature than assurance from a color on a chart. Maybe the department should look into where their funding is going and make a more responsible choice to provide real safety instead of just covering politicians.
Erin Cooksley is a freshman political science major from Texas City.