August 11, 2004
By The Plaid Adder
I don't know if you noticed, but we've gone to orange alert again.
I know you know the drill; God knows we've been through it often
enough before. But this one is special. Because this time, it's
clear that the terror alert system is not simply a hugely embarrassing
waste of time and money. This time, it's clear - even if you believe
everything the government has said so far - that the alert system
is actually elevating the threat all by itself.
This story has gone through a lot of permutations over the past
week, so here's a summary:
- The Sunday after John Kerry accepts the Democratic Party's
nomination at the convention in Boston, the Department of Homeland
Security announces that they are going to Code Orange based on
some startling new intelligence that leads them to believe that
there is a plot to attack major financial centers on the east
- By Tuesday, the New York Times and the Washington
Post both report that the information on which the alert was
based was several years old, much of it dating to before 9/11/01.
For what may be the first time, the possibility that the alert
may have been issued for purely expedient reasons is discussed
in major media markets.
- One day later, some "senior officials" head out to the New
York Times for a briefing, in which they assure reporters
that no, really, they do have some up to date information, from
a "separate intelligence stream" about which they refuse to give
- This resolve does not hold up over the long term, however,
and soon we learn that both the old files and the 'separate intelligence
stream' result from the arrest of one Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan,
who apparently was one of Al Qaeda's computer nerds. So, really,
there was a reason to go to that alert status, folks! It
wasn't political at all! Unless, you know, you believe
Republic article from July 19 about how the Bush administration
was putting pressure on Pakistan to deliver "high value targets"
in time to help Bush's re-election campaign - preferably during
the last week of July, during the Democratic convention.
- On Monday, August 9, CNN announces that by leaking Khan's name
to the press, these "senior officials" have actually seriously
hurt a sting
operation that had been using Khan to track down Al Qaeda
members - fairly successfully, it appears - right up to the point
when our own "senior officials" blew the whole setup by unmasking
the mole, after which there was "a drop in intercepted communications
among suspected terrorists."
Oh, and I forgot to mention that in the middle of all this Tom
Ridge assured us all that the Department of Homeland Security "doesn't
I beg to differ. That ridiculous terror alert system is
politics, and nothing else. It always has been.
This last alert makes the politics clear in a particularly egregious
way, and it also demonstrates the extent to which this administration
puts its own well-being above everything else. Knowing as they do
that their credibility is shot, and that this is going to be a big
factor in November, they made the decision to sacrifice the possibility
of making actual progress in the War On Terror in order to
create the perception of progress. Whereas it would have
been smarter from a counterterrorism standpoint, as Senator Allen
said, to "have kept their mouth shut and just said, 'We have information,
The thing is, this administration knows full well that they can't
say that. We've been lied to by them so often and so foully that
the only response to "we have the information, trust us" would be
a national eruption of bitter and ironic laughter. To protect the
sting by refusing to give those "background" interviews to the media
in which they revealed their sources, the Bush administration would
have had to be willing to take one for the team, as it were - to
allow their public image to be further tarnished, and their election
chances further diminished, for the sake of the country. And of
course, they weren't willing to do that. If these people cared more
about the country than they do about their own power, we wouldn't
be in this fix.
The other option, of course, would have been not to issue one
of those stupid terror alerts in the first place.
I have never understood what this system was meant to accomplish
or why anyone accepted it as useful or necessary. In fact, the entire
thing seems wildly out of character for the Bush administration.
When it comes to something that we might actually profit from knowing
- like, for instance, which energy companies have bought the Vice
President this week - they guard it as if it were the secret formula
to the elixir of life. Secrecy has been a fetish for this administration
since its inauguration, and with the Patriot Act to help them they
have been working very hard for a very long time to make sure that
nobody can find out what they're up to. And yet, whenever they get
a piece of news - or what they think is a piece of news - about
Al Qaeda's activities from a secret intelligence source that you'd
think they would want to keep unknown and on the down-low, they
immediately light up the alert board and trumpet it abroad to all
No wonder Pakistan's intelligence community is pissed off. First
King George demands high value targets in time for the convention
- then, when they finally come across with one, his advisors immediately
lower its value by publicizing his capture. This is like trying
to play bridge with a partner who celebrates your signal that you
have a three no-trump hand by sounding a blast on an air horn. In
the one situation for which you could actually make a legitimate
case for keeping things quiet, the Bush administration has deliberately
set it up so that anything that comes into the informers' microphones
goes right out on the public address system.
Why do we keep tipping our hand this way? Well, according to Condoleezza
Rice, it's because the administration keenly feels its responsibility
to the American people: "You have to go out and warn. You have a
duty to warn." What is this "duty to warn?" Does she think that
we're not going to mind the next terrorist attack because we were
on orange alert when it happened? Honey, the reason people are beating
up on you all over September 11 is not because it was a surprise,
but because it happened at all. Your duty is not to warn. Your duty
is to protect. And if warning us actually prevents
you from protecting us, I think we can all agree we would really
much rather be protected. That's kind of a no-brainer.
I mean sure, the fact that 9/11 happened without warning did increase
the shock we all felt. We had never imagined a thing like that would
happen, and that made it harder to bear the wound. But you know
what, since 9/11, I think we can all consider ourselves on notice.
We don't need Tom Ridge popping up every few months waving his arms
frantically in the air and going "Be afraid! Be very afraid! Boogala
The terror alert system is not designed to protect Americans.
It is designed to keep Americans scared. That's all it does. The
of Homeland Security's website acknowledges that the terror
alerts produce significant "psychological effects" on the country
as a whole. Furthermore, it acknowledges that there is just about
no practical purpose for putting these alerts out. The people who
can actually do something about an impending threat could
just as easily be notified in some less public way; and when it
comes to the general public, well, here's how the DHS's official
site recommends we respond to a terror alert:
All Americans should continue to be vigilant, take notice of
their surroundings, and report suspicions items or activities
to local authorities immediately. Everybody - whether living in
New York City, Washington, D.C., or another part of the country
- should establish an emergency preparedness kit as well as a
communications plan for themselves and their family, and stay
informed about what to do during an emergency situation.
Okay, everyone in this country already has had an emergency preparedness
kit and a communications plan in place since September 12, 2001.
So basically we respond to an Orange Alert by being "vigilant" -
which they acknowledge we have already been exhorted to do plenty
of times before. So if we can't do anything apart from what we're
already doing, what's the point?
The point is to keep us scared. It's that simple. And in terms
of preventing terrorism it doesn't work worth a damn; but in terms
of keeping us all highly nervous, it's always worked very well.
It works on some people, anyway. For example, in February 2003,
when they went to Orange Alert, I pretty much shrugged it off. But
I was surprised, and dismayed, to get an email from my sister clearly
indicating that the Orange Alert really had her rattled, and that
she assumed I would be just as worried by it. My sister was living
in Manhattan at the time - fortunately far away from Ground Zero
- and for people who lived through 9/11 in New York, well, things
What really struck me was that the difference between my response
and hers was not just ideological, though we do differ ideologically
on a number of things. She really was frightened. It wasn't that
she had made some intellectual decision that the Orange Alert was
justified and that therefore she ought to be vigilant like our government
told her to be. She was just scared, on a gut level. And I hadn't
This is not because I am naturally fearless. Anxiety has been
part of my life for a long time, and October of 2001, when the anthrax
scare was blazing through the national media, was a bad month for
me. But for whatever reason, by February of 2003 I was done waiting
for the other shoe to drop. And because I am familiar with anxiety,
and I know that if it's bad enough for long enough it can kill just
about any good feeling that's in you, it really bothered me to see
my sister getting anxious over that February 2003 alert. Here's
part of an email I sent my sister trying to make her feel a little
I don't live in Manhattan and WTF do I know. But I truly,
honestly believe that this 'terror alert' stuff is crap. First
of all, every other time they've told us to be on 'heightened
alert' nothing has ever come of it. Second, the timing of these
terror alerts is strangely convenient; this one, for instance,
occurred the day that United For Peace was filing a suit to get
a permit for their march on the 15th, which then allowed the judge
to deny the permit citing "heightened security concerns." Third...when
you come right down to it, nobody can predict the future, and
these people don't know any more than you or I do when the next
terror attack is coming. If they did, they would go down there
and stop it from happening.
The duct-tape thing is a perfect example of how bogus this
is. Duct tape and plastic? What's that going to do, apart from
causing everyone inside the sealed-up house to suffocate? They
are not approaching this terror threat in any way that makes any
sense. What's the point of putting out this alert anyhow? What
are we supposed to do about this increased danger, apart from
just sit at home and get paranoid?
I know it's hard not to get swept up in all the panic, especially
when it has happened once and everyone's memories are still fresh.
But although I am very scared too in a lot of ways when I see
what's going on with our government, and I do worry about the
possibility of another attack, I really don't think there's much
reason to worry about it any *more* right now than there was last
month or than there will be two months from now.
I'm mad at the Orange Alert people for scaring you. I feel
like calling Tom Ridge up and telling him not to fuck with my
little sister, she has enough to worry about already.
I'm still mad. And not just on behalf of my sister, but on behalf
of all the people who get put through this over and over again every
time the Bush administration feels like reminding us that we are
A NATION AT WAR! That's all they have to run on: the same fear and
panic that made the country rally around George Bush on September
12, 2001. And to keep that fear alive in all of us, they have to
keep hitting the panic button.
A little while after September 11 I went to a talk given by a
scholar named Benedict Anderson who has spent his career trying
to understand nations and nationalism. One thing he said has always
stuck with me. Almost in passing, he mentioned, as if we should
all know this already, that the point of a terrorist attack was
not so much to kill the victims as to show the survivors what it
is like to die. In other words, terrorism depends for its impact
on the media and on the national government, who increase the survivors'
fears by constantly reminding them of what happened and how awful
it was and that it could very well happen again. If it generates
a powerful enough image, if it is bounced back and forth from mirror
to mirror for long enough, a single act of violence can be so magnified
and multiplied and reiterated that it can terrorize an entire nation
for years on end.
It's been almost three years since the towers came down. If we
really don't want the terrorists to win, then it is about time that
we stopped letting our own government jerk us around. Al Qaeda's
primary weapon is not the box cutter, the airplane, the unidentified
white powder or the bomb: it's fear. In the war on terrorism, the
one damn thing that we as average Americans can do is to
refuse to be terrified. Even and especially when our own government
tells us to.
In the end, death is going to come for us all like a thief in
the night, no matter how prepared we think we are. Till that time,
all we can really do is live as well as we can. Eventually, fear
kills all the things that make life worth living - love, joy, compassion,
community, desire, creativity. It's up to us to protect ourselves
from this death of the heart, even if we can't do anything to protect
So to hell with the orange alert. I'm going back to green. Hope
to see you all there soon.
The Plaid Adder's demented ravings have been delighting an equally
demented online audience since 1996. More of the same can be found
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