Color Code Confusion

Homeland security code color elevated yellow terror alert CBS/AP

Am I the only one who's confused by the various color-coded threat alerts? I know they range from Low Risk Green to "Oh, Boy!" Red. But exactly what are we supposed to do during each one? Every few weeks somebody from the government tells us that there is an increased risk of terrorism. Later that same day, sometimes somebody else from the government tells us that he disagrees, and there is no increased risk. Other days, they tell us that there is an increased risk, but they're not elevating the alert level. At all of these times, they tell us to increase our vigilance, but go on with our normal behavior. Huh?

Suppose they told us this morning that the terrorist risk has increased. What should we do differently today from yesterday? Should we look over our shoulders all day, as we buy more bottled water and freeze-dried food? Are we supposed to avoid talking to that new guy at work, the one with the moustache? Should we still bother getting our hair cut?

When I was a kid, we had air raid drills for nuclear attacks, and all the children were supposed to go under their desks. After a while, someone either figured out that this wouldn't protect anyone from a nuclear attack or too many kids were hitting their heads on the desks. Regardless, they abandoned the drill. Is it time to get rid of the terrorist threat alert system, too?

Since 9/11, we've known that there is a constant threat of terrorist attack. If people are told every single day that they might be attacked, they probably react in one of two major ways: they are in a constant state of fright and panic, or they are in denial. Since it's probably impossible to go about your life in a constant panic, most of us tend to be in denial. We just don't think about what level of risk we're in. I don't know anybody who checks the Homeland Security Web site every morning to see what color threat condition we're in before getting dressed for work. (If such people do exist, maybe that's how they choose the color of their wardrobe.)

So most people are confused. And those who aren't scared to death by the announcements have fallen victim to the "boy who cried 'wolf'" syndrome and stopped paying attention to them. So why does the government keep making them?

They say it's to keep the public informed. Some people think there are more sinister reasons. They believe any time there is a dip in the president's popularity, the government announces a new terrorist threat to scare the public. The thought is that the frightened public will want to stay with the current leadership. Not only am I not so cynical as to buy into this, but I'm not sure I even get the logic. If people become frightened about future attacks, why would that necessarily make them want to stay with the leaders who were in charge during the last attack?

In other words, none of this makes sense. But there has been so much confusion, intelligence failures, committees, and investigations that credibility is a rarer commodity then Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. People don't know what to believe.

So I'd like to find out what you believe. Please send me the answers to this survey, and I'll forward them to the Department of Homeland Security:
  1. Ask the person next to you if he or she knows what color alert is on for today. If they do, what are they going to do about it?

  2. Do you ever change your behavior when the threat level goes up? For example, do you buy more duct tape, finally call up that love from high school, or make sure to wear a hat when you go outdoors?

  3. How do you react when the threat level goes down? For example, do you breathe a sigh of relief or go directly to worrying about Lyme disease and West Nile virus?

  4. Are you one of the cynics who thinks there will be an announcement of an increased threat right before the November election?

  5. Should the government just abandon this system?

  6. Bonus Question: Wouldn't you like to know how many meetings it took and how much we paid the person who decided that green is a safer color than blue?


Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.

By Lloyd Garver
  • Lloyd Vries

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