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The color of terror

Daniel Cucher
By Daniel Cucher
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday Mar. 21, 2002

Relax. It's Thursday afternoon, the second day of spring, 81 degrees, sunny; there's a minimal chance of precipitation, and the terrorist-threat index is at an all-time low.

Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge unveiled a new color-coded warning system last week to bridge the gap between the military's perceived threat of terror and the average American's degree of paranoia. Now, with the same accuracy with which your local weatherman predicts scattered showers, the government can anticipate the chances of a crazed Jihad soldier flying a 747 into your office building.

The five-hue system ranges from chlorophyll green, which indicates clear skies and minimal risk, to fiery red, which predicts this little experiment in freedom and democracy will shortly be consumed in a firebomb of crashing airplanes and exploding tennis shoes. Currently, the country's status is sunshine yellow (pleasant, but cancerous), the middle rating.

President Bush suggested that America is several years away from the worry-free green assessment, which is expected only after the worldwide al-Qaida terrorist network is completely dismantled. In the meantime, we can hope for a less drastic downgrade to a calming blue "general risk of terrorist attack." Conversely, if the situation worsens, we can expect to see the burning-fuse-orange "high risk" rating.

Regardless of the color rating, the new system always indicates some degree of risk, which is likely to make Americans a bit edgy. For this reason, they should have softened the ratings by labeling them not according to colors, but to juicy fruit flavors: cherry, orange, lemon, lime, and blueberry. Or better yet, tropical flavors: fruit punch, mango, papaya, kiwi, and tropical blueberry.

It isn't clear what factors the Homeland Security Council will use to assign ratings, but one may predict a close correlation between global terrorist activity and warning color. When al-Qaida takes some more time off to build bombs and outline new elaborate plans, we just might enjoy a "general" risk of terrorism. Then, when it strikes again, we can refortify our guard under a deeper shade of red.

Recent military talk suggests we're already in the process of relaxing our defense. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the skies over major American cities have been under surveillance by Air Force planes. The Bush administration implied earlier this week that the surveillance operation should be minimized. Yellow is threatening but apparently doesn't justify making Air Force pilots dizzy, flying circles around New York City.

And after Immigration and Naturalization Services belatedly granted student visas earlier this month to two of the dead 9-11 terrorist pilots (to study flight), it is clear that homeland security is not just a matter of watching the skies.

The new warning system will operate both on a national and geographically specific level. So while every major U.S. city expects Armageddon, the corn farmer in Wisconsin won't have to seek refuge in his tornado shelter. But at least he'll know what's expected a few hundred miles east.

What's troubling is that global terrorists will also know what Americans expect from them. Al-Qaida knows better than to attack when America expects it. In the past, the terrorist network has waited years between attacks. So maybe the idea is to trick them - make them think we're not looking when, in fact, we're ready to drop a piano on their heads when they walk through the door. But this is unlikely, considering local and national emergency and law-enforcement officers will respond in preparedness according to the color of the day. And, it's a stupid idea.

The most logical reasoning for the threat-warning system is political. It is a concrete innovation that will become familiar to Americans and make them think, "It's nice to see the government's doing something about those nutty terrorists." And, if the system has any degree of permanence, it will be part of Bush's legacy. The president can look proudly upon his invention and say, "Look what I did!" Perhaps he will be invited to the ceremony many years down the road when they retire the warning system in light of a perfectly safe planet.

Until then, the hues will likely reflect how the government wants us to feel about national security. As more evidence surfaces about the relative ineffectiveness of Operation Anaconda and other battles in our "War on Terrorism," it will become more important for the government to convey the illusion of progress. Now, it's as easy as stepping down the threat-warning rating.

It's no wonder they chose to start halfway up the rainbow: That's two free colors the administration gets to spend toward national confidence.

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