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Terrorism shield takes on new hue

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By JAN GLIDEWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2002


And you thought the government wasn't doing anything.

But, see, they were.

On Tuesday they replaced the former vague "the sky is falling" home security warning system with a new vague system based on colors.

It still doesn't tell you what kind of attack is expected or where it is expected, and it doesn't say what you should do while you are on alert.

Basically, it seems, your job is to stand or sit in one place, elevate your blood pressure, secrete excess stomach acid and, well, fret, until the color changes and tells you to be more or less agitated.

Hmmm.

If I were a terrorist planning an attack, would I want to do it during a red alert, when everyone is busy being highly alert? Or do I want to wait until everything fades down through almost as panicky orange and yellow and into the nice warm, fuzzy, safe feelings of levels blue and green.

I prided myself in getting all the way through 1984 without writing the words Orwell or Orwellian and without finding hints of the advent of Orwell's nightmare in everything from supermarket checkout technology to caller ID.

But now I'm not so sure.

We aren't watched by our television sets (as far as we know), but our computers do a pretty good job of monitoring our spending and social habits -- under the guise of "helping" us to the world of better marketing.

Our whereabouts are monitored much more than ever before, and it is almost impossible to travel or rent a hotel room without presenting a photo ID. Cities and entertainment venues boast of having cameras equipped with computerized facial-recognition software trained on their residents and visitors.

We allow ourselves to be searched before activities -- sometimes for security reasons, sometimes to make sure we aren't trying to do something subversive like sneak food into a venue that sells it.

We shrug helplessly as our elected and appointed officials throw out constitutional protections against unlawful search and seizure and detention, and we actually listen calmly as the wisest of our pundits debate the morality of torture as a tool of interrogation.

Much as the residents of Orwell's Oceania listened to regular unchallenged government accounts of a war with Eastasia, another fictional country, that nobody was watching, we today allow our military to bring us tightly controlled, canned versions of what military leaders say is happening in our wars. They show us aerial videos of bomb strikes eerily like those of the last war in which we were asked to accept official versions without, in many cases, any dissenting views available.

I'm not saying they aren't telling us the truth. I'm saying we don't know if they are or not, and when we probe too deeply, we get only the hostile glares and warnings from officials saying things like White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said of late night talk show host Bill Maher: that Maher and people like him should "Watch what they say, watch what they do."

Maher had expressed an unpopular viewpoint.

So, for those of you who want to know what the simplified color-alert system means: Red means that there is a "severe risk" of terrorist attack. Orange means that there is a "high risk," yellow an "elevated condition" and "significant risk" of terrorism.

Blue would signify a "general risk," and green would represent the safest risk level.

I wonder how far away we are from using the same or similar color codings to signify the status of civil rights on any given day.

On "red alert" days, will it be all right to round up everyone with strange-sounding names or brown skin, while on days that the yellow flag is flown only random searches of purses and briefcases at public building entrances will be allowed?

We will have to deal with pressing questions like whether the right of habeus corpus is suspended only during "severe risk" days or all the way down to "general risk days."

Will protesters be restricted to "First Amendment zones" only when the president is in town, or will it extend to governors, state legislatures and mosquito control district commissioners?

Just asking.

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