For us old-timers, memories of those post-9/11 days persist like that rotting squirrel stuck somewhere under your back porch.
One of the features of those dirty days was the panic index, actually called the terrorism alert system, created by the then-new Department of Homeland Security. The system featured a five-step, color-coded “alert level” ranging from black (normal) to red (attack imminent.) The system was criticized for doing little more than promoting a constant background hum of anxiety when it basically got stuck at “elevated risk” for nearly eight years.
The Obama administration, in 2010, replaced the old five step system with a new two step one: imminent and elevated. It too got stuck in elevated mode and faded into obscurity. Most people today don’t even know it exists.
That is now over. Following the events of San Bernardino, the Department of Homeland Security announced this week that a new level will be added to cover less serious threats, though officials declined to say what it will be called. “It wouldn’t be specifics like time and place,” one of the officials said. “It would be along the lines of terrorists have expressed interest in attacking this type of target.”
The new system sounds suspiciously like the State Department travel advisory system. Originally created to send out bulletins on immediate dangers affecting travelers (“flood in Mali”), the system quickly morphed into a steady stream of “world-wide” generalities along the lines of “something terrorist may happen somewhere sometime, so better just stay home.”
The new Homeland Security warning system will by definition add a new threat layer that is unspecific. That raises the point of what is the point. The media already is doing a fine job of stoking the public’s fear levels via a steady stream of exaggerated reports on ISIS (replacing the old steady stream of exaggerated reports on al Qaeda, could be a pattern here.) The result is quite clearly of value only in keeping alive among a gullible public anxiety and fear.
And so the new warning system will enter the media-government feedback loop as follows. Homeland Security will issue a non-specific warning of “something terrorist may happen somewhere sometime.” The media will then dutifully report that warning, amplifying its pointlessness across TV, the last few newspapers and the web. Pundits will pick up the media reports and comment on them, keeping alive for another few news cycles a non-story that should never have been taken seriously in the first place.
The result: Panic. Anxiety. Fear. Public support for further erosion of our civil rights and freedoms because we will have to “do something” in response to the new threat. Repeat, and repeat.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent. Reprinted from the his blog with permission.