Keith Scharwath


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.

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