Democratic Underground

Panic Button

August 11, 2004
By The Plaid Adder

So, 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 coast.

  • 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 any details.

  • 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 that New 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 do politics."

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, trust us.'"

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 and sundry.

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 boogala boogala!!"

The terror alert system is not designed to protect Americans. It is designed to keep Americans scared. That's all it does. The Department 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 are different.

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 been.

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 better:

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 our bodies.

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 at the Adder's Lair.


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