Color Blind

UPDATE [3:30 p.m.]: It looks like Attorney General John Ashcroft misled us again. Although he said Monday that the terrorism-alert system would stay at "orange" for the foreseeable future, the government today downgraded the alert level to "yellow." You might think this calls into question the thesis of the following article, which predicts that a code stuck at orange forever would render the terrorism-alert system irrelevant. The fact, however, that the color-code change seems to be getting so little coverage validates our point -- sort of. This code is one people aren't paying much attention to, nor should they be.

When Attorney General John Ashcroft announced Monday that he has no plans to lower the nation's alert level, there was barely a reaction. It has been almost three weeks since the alert color jumped from yellow to orange -- and in that time, Americans have grown accustomed to the idea that we are at a "high risk" for terrorist attack. On Monday, Ashcroft didn't give any reasons for his decision. "The constant and continuous evaluation of the factors that go into the development of threat level have not changed in a way significant enough for the threat level to be changed," he said. Whatever that means. The looming war with Iraq wasn't the key factor, he explained. But he also didn't give any new evidence that terror attacks are just around the corner. Whatever the thinking behind his decision, one thing is for sure: By maintaining the same high alert level for three straight weeks, the government has effectively boxed itself into a situation where we may be stuck at orange forever. As a result, it's time to color the terror alert system useless, once and for all.

It seems likely that we will never go to green, or "low risk," because after September 11, the government will never again be able to essentially guarantee that we're free from the risk of an attack. Same goes for blue, or "guarded." Government officials appear worried that if we return to yellow, or "elevated," something bad will happen and they'll get blamed for telling us to relax a bit. (Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge suggested recently that we could go back to yellow, but obviously someone overruled him.) The only other color left, of course, is red, or "severe." And by the time we get there, people won't be thinking about colors but rather about how to survive an ongoing attack.

All of which is to say that we are now looking at spending the majority of our lives at orange. What exactly does this mean? By the government's standards, it means requiring more cooperation between different agencies, taking more precautions at public events, making contingency plans and restricting threatened facility access to essential personnel. By the public's standards, it means learning to live in panic. We can't escape orange. We see it displayed prominently on some television networks. We (well, many of us) think about it several times a day. The Feb. 24 cover of New York magazine reads, "Living with Anxiety: The Economy, the War, the Threat of Terrorism -- What they are doing to our psyches." In one article, New Yorkers list the places they feel vulnerable because terrorists could target them for attack: a public bus, Madison Square Garden, the N Street train to Brooklyn, Times Square, the Ziegfeld, Dos Caminos, the 92nd Street Y. And the most recent cover of The New Yorker pictures Osama bin Laden studying a New York subway map.

I have to admit that I'm a negligent orange person. I don't have my duct tape or my bottles of water. I used up a lot of my canned veggies to get through last week's blizzard. And I don't do anything differently on an orange day than a yellow one. I still eat breakfast, ride the subway, go to work and spend time with my friends. I don't get overly anxious because, really, what can I do about it? I work in Washington, D.C. If something happens here, I'm probably not going to make it home to my stock-piled food in northern Virginia.

On the Homeland Security Department website, a headline reads, "Don't Be Afraid, Be Ready -- One individual, One family, One Community At A Time." According to the accompanying article, "The threat of terrorism forces us to make a choice. We can be afraid, or we can be ready. Today America's families declare, 'We will not be afraid; we will be ready.'" It also tells us that "we will prevail in the war on terrorism because of the work of our professionals." And that's exactly the point -- presumably, the professionals are on the job whether we're at orange or at yellow. The extra steps they take at orange are smart steps they should be taking anyway -- with or without a color-coded alert system.

Americans want security after 9-11; they want to know someone is watching out for them and they want to have some kind of sign before an attack comes. The government has alerted us that another attack is likely. The government has told us that it's taking all possible steps to stop one from occurring. All of which is good -- and all of which is tangible. But an alert system that has lost all meaning doesn't help us protect ourselves. And it's one source of anxiety we could live without.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a Prospect senior editor.