If it was a Jeopardy question, would you be able to identify the present status of the national terrorist threat level without guessing? That’s what we thought. As presently configured, this color-coded warning system seems to have all the gravitas of the flag rotation at the beach that advises of strong undertow or the presence of too many jellyfish in the water. Actually, the resemblance is uncanny. Each has a five-color system that seems to randomly land on a selection depending on what a lifeguard or the Director of Homeland Security had for breakfast. Is it time to simplify our terrorist warning system from five flags to three?
The History of the Flag System
Color has a powerful influence on humans, shaping our moods and having a larger than you might imagine effect on your personal opinion of any particular day. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001, officials in the newly created Department of Homeland Security decided a color-coded system was the best way to gain the attention of the average citizen, enabling them to discern at a glance the prevailing overall threat level, ranging from Green for “low risk of terrorist attacks” to Red for “severe risk of terrorist attacks.” In the near two decades since its establishment, the Threat Level Advisory System has been adjusted 17 times, the last in 2006 when it settled on Yellow, a “significant risk of terrorist attacks.”
Recently, the Homeland Security Advisory Council decided there might be a few too many flags and they may drop the bottom two, presumably on the theory that there’s a good chance we’ll never have a “Low” or “Guarded” state of affairs again. We can look to Israel for guidance here. Think they ever let their guard down? We’re guessing not. And presumably, five flag colors upon which our life depends is deemed more than the average citizen can keep up with
Stay Out of the Water and Watch for Madmen in Trucks
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano received the bad news from her council in the form of an official letter describing the current public indifference and lack of confidence in the Threat Level Advisory System. Though some panel members were in favor of scrapping the colored threat system entirely, the current non-binding recommendation is to move to a simplified three-color system that includes:
Yellow: A “guarded” state in the nation that urges all citizens to assume “standard” vigilance against potential terrorist action. This would be the new lowest threat level.
Orange: An “elevated” suspicion level in which protective measures are implemented upon the basis of specific information regarding a terrorist plot. An example - Johnny Jihad gets on Facebook and threatens to blow up the Super Bowl.
Red: This “high” alert level is intended to exert maximum protective measures against an ongoing or imminent terrorist action.
Keep the Politics Out
One of the compelling reasons to change the color-coded threat system, according to the council, is a recent revelation in former Homeland Security head honcho Tom Ridge’s book, The Test of Our Times, that members of George W. Bush’s cabinet urged him to increase the national threat level in the days leading up to the 2004 presidential election, theorizing that the move would go a long ways towards securing a second term for the sitting president.
Obviously, this kind of political chicanery doesn’t do much to increase public trust. Now the politicians at Homeland have decreed that the new system, “for reasons of public credibility,” won’t be politicized. They go on to assure us in the most insistent of terms that the new threat level will be changed only when public safety and security compels it. Riigghht. We'll believe it when we see it.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the world is a squirrelly place; it doesn’t seem we’re safe online or off. For the former, there are legitimate security steps you can take to protect yourself. With the latter, it may very well make all the sense in the world to simplify the Threat Level Assessment System, but the way to gain credibility is not to claim there will be no politics involved. That’s an insult to Americans everywhere. Of course, there will be politics involved. Politicians can’t help themselves. The best we can hope for is that, along the way to politicizing this new system, they might inadvertently do a good thing for the rest of us.