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The Red Scare

Osama bin Laden is dead, but the awkward, nonspecific system for measuring our collective fear remains.

The paranoiac genius of the old Homeland Security Advisory System, which was phased out in April, wasn’t in the color scheme. It was in the box size. The five boxes were of equal proportion, stacked on top of each other. The eye, accustomed to reading charts and graphs, registered a steady shift in the level of alert, from a pastoral green at the bottom to a flaming red on top. That had an effect on the orderly mind. Each elevation in the terror alert told it to be 20 percent more afraid.

Now consider the baseline that the advisory adopted. A full 80 percent of the boxes indicated you were likely to die. Even pastoral green, “Low,” said the risk of a terrorist attack was slim but not impossible. Above green was “Guarded,” which, despite its calm blue hue, meant there was a “General Risk” that Osama bin Laden would touch you. Not for one day in the nine-year existence of the Homeland Security Advisory System did the government drop to a blue alert.

Six months after Obama’s inauguration, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged the color-coded Legos were outmoded and convened an advisory panel on the subject. But it took nearly two more years for the administration to jettison the relic of the Bush era and implement its own method.

The new system, renamed the National Threat Advisory System, has merely two levels: “Elevated” and “Imminent.” There is no color scheme. It does not assume a threat to New York City is the same as a threat to Sheboygan. The Department of Homeland Security now lists a specific danger to a certain place. Or, it will, the department promises. Threat alerts will come directly to your mobile device, should you elect to receive them. A Twitter account, @NTASAlerts, was activated in January but has yet to issue a single warning. As of this writing it has more than 9,000 followers waiting to hear of their impending doom.

Yet while there have been cosmetic changes to the alert system, Napolitano has preserved its essential characteristics. Unlike warning systems for, say, extreme weather, the advisory—now as then—doesn’t tell you what to do in the face of a looming terrorist attack.

“For it to be useful,” says Bruce Schneier, a security consultant and vigilant critic of terror hysteria, “the alert would have to say, ‘There’s a terrorist on this corner of this street, right now. Instead of making a left, make a right.’ It’s not going to do that. It’ll be, ‘There’s a terror alert in New York on Tuesday.’ The same bullshit.”

The death of bin Laden clarified just how little the alert system has changed. Evidence recovered from his compound suggested that the al-Qaeda leader considered targeting U.S. rail networks. But the Department of Homeland Security didn’t issue a terror alert. Instead Matt Chandler, press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, told everyone to calm down: “This alleged al-Qaeda plotting is based on initial reporting,” he explained, “which is often misleading or inaccurate and subject to change.” It would take “specific or credible” information to issue an alert.

Other intelligence harvested from bin Laden’s compound revealed that he struggled to convince even other members of al-Qaeda that they should continue targeting the United States, as opposed to intervening in more immediate struggles against adversaries in the Mideast or South Asia. The Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda, the only offshoot looking to attack the United States at home, has been thwarted twice in a year; its second attempt, with bombs packed in printers and shipped to Chicago, was vastly less ambitious than its first. In 2008, 34,172 Americans died in vehicle accidents. None were killed by terrorists on American soil. Bin Laden’s death ought to augur the death of terror alerts.

And yet there remains, in a scaled-back version, an awkward, nonspecific system for quantifying our fear of terrorist attacks—a fear that can be quickly and easily stoked through Twitter. That isn’t to say it’s not possible to deduce the level of fear Americans should possess from the terror threat. Schneier has worked it out.

“I can quantify it really easily: not at all. Zero,” he says. “You should be zero scared of terrorists. And maybe 1/120th more afraid of terrorists than you are of everyone else.”

Therein lies a hint of the only argument for keeping the terror alerts. If the United States is truly going to tweet at its citizenry a guidebook for fear, it might as well retain the self-evident uselessness of the fear Legos. Recognizing the absurdity of the terror alerts might be the only way to get to green.

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