Tuesday, May 04, 2010

How to end the orange alerts

In a response to the Times scare car bomb attempt [1] James Fallows comments on the alerts that have given orange a bad name ...
... for eight and a half years now, the dominant federal government response to terrorist threats and attacks has been to magnify their harm by increasing a mood of fear and intimidation. That is the real case against the ludicrous 'orange threat level' announcements we hear every three minutes at the airport. It's not just that they're pointless, uninformative, and insulting to our collective intelligence; it's that their larger effect is to make people feel frightened rather than brave...
Are alerts red today, now that there might have been yet another (one of ten since 2001) terroristic action in Manhattan?

No, I didn't think so.

I see the "orange alert" sign every time I drive by the MSP airport. I keep hoping some kids will have vandalized it, but of course that would be a federal crime probably punishable by summary execution. It is an endless reminder of how stupid we are.

The entire "orange alert" class of security theater is politically hard to undo. Fallows puts it well ...
... A politician who supports more open-ended, more thorough, more intrusive, more expensive inspections can never be proven "wrong." The absence of attacks shows that his measures have "worked"; and a new attack shows that inspections must go further still. A politician who wants to limit the inspections can never be proven "right." An absence of attacks means that nothing has gone wrong -- yet. Any future attack would always and forever be that politician's "fault." Given that asymmetry of risks, what public figure will ever be able to talk about paring back the TSA...
If Obama were to do anything obviously rational about these delusions, Cheney/Murdoch would be frothing at the mouth the next morning.

There is hope, however. Obama could use some terrorist act to declare that the nation must consider "orange" to the the new normal. We will never return to whatever the color below orange was. (That is likely true; the forecast is stormy forever). He can also say that cognitive science teaches us that unchanging things become invisible to us. So we will randomly make announcements and activate the orange alert signs to make them more perceptible, with an average frequency of once an hour. Over time the frequency will diminish.

The signs will dim. Some will fail. Repairs will slow. One day we will turn them off.

[1] I wonder if bomb instructions are harder to find now than they were fifteen years ago. I suspect so.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I had been under the impression that the new administration's DHS was planning to do away with the color-codings. I guess I thought they already had -- but I see http://www.dhs.gov/files/programs/Copy_of_press_release_0046.shtm (this is the actual URL for "Current Threat Level"...) so no, not yet at least.

The Cato Institution (of all people, or perhaps I should not be surprised) wrote a good article ridiculing it a few years ago: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=4205