When President Bush and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge introduced the color-coded terrorism-risk-assessment scheme last September, the five-color chart became the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes for several weeks. Now that the country is at war with Iraq, however, the laughter has subsided and television anchors earnestly broadcast the current risk assessment (orange, or high condition, as I write this).
Above “Elevated Risk,” where the country will likely remain at for the duration of the war, there is only one level: “Severe Risk” a.k.a. Red Alert. For a short time on Wednesday, in fact, a rumor went around that the level would be raised, causing nervousness on Wall Street. While DHS won’t word it this way, Red Alert has clear implications: Major terrorist attacks have already taken place or top homeland-security planners consider them unavoidable. In DHS’s own words “Protective Measures for a Severe Condition are not intended to be sustained for substantial periods of time.” The rest of the “Severe Risk” status measures, described here, make it pretty clear: Red Alert isn’t really an alert status as much as a sign that things have already gone wrong. Emergency personal will work overtime, major facilities get closed down, and transportation networks stop functioning. Had the United States gone to Red Alert a few minutes after the first plane hit the World Trade Center, the attack on the Pentagon, the plane crash in Pennsylvania and, perhaps, the second World Trade Center attack would probably have been averted.
The measures taken on 9/11 and the few days that followed gave Americans a good preview of what Red Alert would look like: omnipresent security personal and closed-down airports While the system only binds federal agencies to take certain actions, most state and federal agencies will likely follow suit. In fact, a half-dozen large private employers and local agencies that let me see their security plans have developed comprehensive responses for each level.
A review of these plans shows pretty good faith to planners’ intentions: high levels of readiness for short periods of time. A lot of non-federal efforts focus on keeping the public assured: Police departments’ plans that I’ve seen typically involve stationing a lot of personnel in visible locations and upping neighborhood patrols. Most local police agencies won’t repeat the post-9/11 mistakes when they tried to guard local government buildings and reservoirs against attacks that were either impossible or very unlikely. (Poisoning a typical reservoir requires a large truck full of toxins and Islamist terrorists probably aren’t interested in the Des Moines, Iowa city hall.) One well-known hotel chain where house “detectives” (as hotel security personal call themselves) typically walk around in suits will put them all into police-style uniforms, with gun belts showing, in the event of severe threat. But all private-sector plans are wholly symbolic: Police departments plan massively increased vehicle stops and some major shopping malls have metal detectors ready.
These measures may help prevent some terrorist attacks but, most importantly, they will shield people from the sense of helplessness that gripped many in the wake of 9/11. For most Americans, the best initial response to “severe” level is pretty simple: Stay away from national landmarks and follow any instruction government authorities give out. For private employers, the best advice is much the same; shut down operations for at least a few hours unless you’re in the life-safety business (hospitals, power companies) or just can’t (hotels). A lot of people — including a hapless DHS bureaucrat who famously told Americans to stock up on duct tape — believe that households should prepare themselves for red alert. While it’s wise to keep nonperishable food, candles, bottled water, and yes, duct tape on hand, such preparations will more likely to shield a household against a winter storm or hurricane than a terrorist attack. But such measures can make immense psychological difference and prevent panic.
— Eli Lehrer is a senior editor at The American Enterprise.