Archive for Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Americans shrug off color-coded alerts

November 26, 2002


When the FBI recently issued a warning about a potential spectacular terrorist attack against U.S. interests, many Americans shrugged.

Who can blame them?

The color-coded system for disseminating information about terrorist threats - which was intended to create a common vocabulary, context and structure for ongoing discussions about terrorism dangers - delivers little. The warnings are simply too vague, general and unspecific to assist anyone in coping with terrorism developments.

Indeed, at several recent public forums focusing on terrorism that I attended, the few people who expressed interest in the green-blue-orange-yellow-red coding system either found the warnings disruptive or useless. One person allowed as how the color warnings and accompanying threat levels from low to severe are pointless except to make people nervous. Another indicated that the color chart reminds her of LifeSavers but that the candy offers her more comfort.

Perhaps the Bush administration, in its efforts to devise a comprehensive system, underestimated the intelligence of the American people in the aftermath of Sept. 11. A simple, direct approach would be preferable.

The time to make a change and rework the system is now, before the war against terrorism takes a more-complicated turn. That appears likely as al-Qaida and its allies gear up for the next attack and other events - such as a looming war in Iraq - create expanded pressure for terrorist mayhem.

When the intensity of the age of terrorism began to accelerate a decade ago, many analysts warned that Americans were unprepared, that they would have to develop a new security consciousness to deal with the changing threat. That consciousness includes a better understanding of terrorists and their motives, greater awareness of one's surroundings and, overall, ongoing vigilance.

The current color-coding system and related warnings certainly have not helped to accomplish those goals. In fact, many Americans assume that the federal government is simply trying to cover its backside in the event of another horrific attack. If that happened, the feds could say, "Well, we warned you."

But with warnings coming as frequently as rain and ranging up and down the color chart, it all begins to sound rather Chicken-Littlish and irrelevant.

Another aspect to consider is how terrorists might manipulate the color-coding system. After all, the terrorist method seeks to gain regular attention and acknowledgement from news media and others. Furthermore, if the warnings frighten people, the terrorists score points in the psychological arena. Terrorists might even try to manipulate the color-coding system by putting out false reports about planned attacks just to rattle Americans, cause fatigue in counter-terrorism defenses and lull people into complacency. In the war against terrorism, disinformation campaigns work both ways.

The Bush administration would do better to establish alert-and-response levels for government and law-enforcement purposes and keep the day-to-day details to itself.

At the same time, to reassure the general public, the White House should focus on what's going on in the various areas of the war against terrorism: successes in Afghanistan and other battle zones; the thwarting of terrorist attacks against U.S. interests (according to some estimates, nearly two dozen since Sept. 11); and advances in homeland security.

Finally, the Bush administration should issue a clear, uncomplicated message to the American people: "You are henceforth in a new security environment in which you should be prepared at all times for the possibility of a terrorist attack, while understanding that terrorists cannot attack everywhere at once. If a specific, imminent attack appears likely, we will inform you. Routinely, though, we will leave it up to you to practice vigilance."

That approach would greatly reduce the number of warnings about potential terrorist acts and eliminate the current sky-is-falling nature of announcements. Americans also would likely pay closer attention, rather than fumbling to remember what a certain color code means - or tuning out.

- John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, also is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives and a professor at the University of Central Florida. His e-mail address is

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