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Ask Auntie Pinko
January 15, 2004

Dear Auntie Pinko,

Whenever there is an increase in the alert "color," what does that REALLY mean for the average person, even in New York? Become more vigilant? Look for anything that is suspicious? I am at a loss as to what to look for. What is "more suspicious?" How come in the past, security was able to operate without all these "advertisements?" Who are the real terrorists?

If anything, it seems that homeland security would terrify people more than anything else; that is, except me, or most people I know. Most people I know are paying much less attention to these alerts because we simply want to move on with our lives and we refuse to be scared. It's like an automobile in the city or mall parking lot, sounding its ignored alarm. People get immune to it, eventually. I see a purpose for security, but hasn't security operated effectively without advertisement in the past? During 9/11 security simply wasn't operating. If they were, they would need no advertisement.

Middletown, NJ

Dear Jim,

If I may take the liberty of condensing your many questions down to one central query (I may be wrong in this interpretation, of course, but bear with me), you want to know how (and whether) the government's public communications about security relate to the actual level of safety experienced by every American. And that's a good, important question to discuss right now.

On the one hand, Auntie can understand the rationale behind the silly "color system," and the TIPS lines, and the signs exhorting people to report "suspicious" activity (whatever that is.) It springs partly from the normal human impulse of butt-covering (an impulse especially pronounced in politicians of any ideological bent,) and partly from a sincere desire to give the nervous and timid a comfortable sense that 'someone is doing something' about the problem.

To put the most benign possible face on it, let me ask you the question, Jim. If you were in charge, and another horrible terrorist attack occurred domestically, involving terrible destruction and loss of life, would you rather have people believe that you were trying hard but just couldn't prevent this one? Or would you rather have people thinking, 'well, what the heck was he doing?' Auntie Pinko sincerely doubts that if Mr. Gore were in the White House, his administration would restrain itself from implementing some highly visible, largely cosmetic "preparedness" campaign. (And probably Mr. Limbaugh's followers would be heaping scorn upon it.)

From that standpoint, I can't find it in my heart to criticize Mr. Ridge's rainbow alerts too vigorously. Whatever acute alarm they may have provoked initially will wear off rapidly, and settle into a grinding background anxiety. We have been through this before. You may not be old enough to remember, Jim, but Auntie still recalls the location of the fallout shelters nearest to my home and other highly-frequented places back in the early 1960s. The "duck and cover" drills, with the perky little film that promoted them and the catchy, upbeat "Duck! And cover!" theme song were just as ridiculous as the rainbow alerts.

The generations that grew up between the mid-1970s and September 11, 2001, were uniquely blessed in not having to feel that grinding background anxiety about something. Before the Cold War, it was the Depression and the World Wars. Now, it is terrorism. But we are a resilient species, and we will manage just fine. Silly public relations-geared campaigns to convince us that the government is "doing something" don't necessarily do any harm.

Unless. (Ah, yes, there's always a catch, isn't there?)

Unless the PR campaign wastes resources that could be applied to real safety measures. Unless it's a distraction to prevent people from noticing that the government isn't getting around to doing the expensive things that really will make us safer, but we can't afford to do because we've been blowing our resources on tax cuts for the rich and frivolous revenge wars. Unless it's simply a cynical attempt to increase anxiety that can be exploited for shallow, partisan political victories.

So let's ask the real questions, Jim. How many of the thousands of containers that enter US ports every day are inspected for hazardous contraband? How many of our vulnerable critical infrastructure installations have been made substantially less vulnerable? How effectively have we been able to slow or cut off the streams of money that fund terrorist activities? How much international cooperation have we been able to build to help us isolate terrorists from their support networks and generate reliable, useful intelligence that leads to terrorists' apprehension, prosecution, and imprisonment?

Those are the questions Americans need to be asking our government during this election year, Jim. The more we allow ourselves to be distracted into criticizing the color scheme, the less incentive Mr. Ridge has to make real progress reports about real security improvements. And we must never become "immune" to those status reports. We must keep Mr. Bush's administration, and that of his successor, accountable for the real progress that will generate real security. Thanks for asking Auntie Pinko, Jim!

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