During last week’s snow disaster, which covered the North Atlantic seaboard in a thick blanket of snow while sending Washington D.C. into the stone ages, I learned a lot while trapped in my girlfriend’s apartment without cable or the ability to leave her complex. First, I was wrong about Dr. Phil earlier in the year; he does have some good points, in fact I should spend more time between cases asking myself the tough questions about the inner me. I’ve learned that Blockbuster’s late fees border on usury. I’ve also learned that clearing 3 feet of snow out from under, off the top, and around the sides of a buried car with a bucket and a dustpan either shows that I learned nothing from TOM or I love to engage in inefficient yeoman’s duties. But more importantly, I got an opportunity to contemplate our terror alert system and the feelings it evokes.
Over the weekend before the blizzard that wasn’t technically a blizzard, ‘credible terror threats’ prompted the nation to raise the terror level to orange. DCers frantically rushed to stores not only for plastic sheeting and duct tape, but also for food and supplies. Ironically, the snow fell without ceasing chilling the red hot panic that engulfed the city, preventing all movement for days. On Sunday, while trapped in a mountain of powder, I watched the Secretary of Homeland Defense Tom Ridge on the NBC’s “Meet the Press” reveal that the government never meant to cause panic with the terror alert system, and they never explicitly suggested American citizens build a safe room in their homes with duct tape and plastic.
His comments raised a question in my mind. Given that I’m optimistic (or at least hopeful) that the terror alert system is more than a means to cover the government in case of disaster, I wondered: with extra police presence already around targets, with Hummers already patrolling DC with anti-aircraft missiles, what, exactly, are we as individuals supposed to do when the alert level is raised? Are we supposed to continue our lives as normal or are we supposed to take precautions commiserate with the level of danger? What would those precautions be? I imagine whatever the next threat might be, duct tape and plastic sheeting won’t do much to protect us. There seems like few alternatives to panic and anxiety.
In an attempt to quell the panic, Secretary Ridge and the Department of Homeland Security have unveiled a new ad campaign to help Americans prepare for the possibility of additional terror attacks. Ready.gov, the department’s new website, offers some seemingly practical and effective response advice for jittery people across the country, including how to make an emergency kit and the importance of being informed.
While, I’m glad that the government is addressing the obvious anxiety of the American people, suddenly, I feel like I’m in a time machine. The website’s tone evokes feelings I associate with the peak of the U.S./U.S.S.R. standoff in the 60’s including its missile build-ups and showdowns, the ubiquitous “Fallout Shelter” logos still on the outside of many government buildings, the seemingly useless recommendation for school children to duck and cover under their school desk in case of nuclear blast.
More than anything, I think the ad campaign and website make a psychological appeal. Americans now more than ever need to feel that they can resist and protect themselves against the threat of terror, which strikes as unpredictably as 9/11. In an odd way, scrambling and fighting for the last roll of duct tape in southern Maryland makes us feel in control. Seeing that the terror alert level is raised to orange or red lets us at least think we can tense up for the upcoming blow. On the Ready.gov website, bold text reads “Terrorism forces us to make a choice. Don’t be afraid. Be ready.” I think I’ll end up somewhere in between.
Editor in Chief