Orange you scared?

When the United States’ color-coded security warning system went to orange, the second-highest threat level, over the holidays, how many of us actually responded to it? Apart from those employed as security personnel, none of us did more than experience a vague sense of unease. Otherwise, we went about our lives as usual, and that’s what makes the system virtually useless and, ultimately, counterproductive. It applies a nationwide standard of caution to what are at most localized expectations or possibilities of threats. Not knowing what to do, we ignore the warnings and do nothing.

Why have the system, then? Whose interests does it serve, if it doesn’t serve ours?

We might begin with the Department of Homeland Security, which issues the warnings. It’s not hard to see that some governmental ass-covering is going on here. If nothing else, the system gives the impression that something is being done to protect us. That may explain why there are so many such alerts, despite the lack of actual threats or attacks.

On a deeper level, though, the warnings serve to keep us in a constant state of fear, and that’s good for an administration that has sought to remake the country and its policies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Fear makes us more willing to surrender our civil rights for the sake of security, to accept the increased surveillance everywhere we go and to support the president’s unilateral interventionist policies overseas.

It’s wise to be cautious in this dangerous world. Americans want their government to protect them in reasonable and responsible ways. But we also need to realize it when our leaders are playing on our emotions for their own purposes. Modern history, with its many examples of the manipulative use of fear to gain and hold onto power, should make us equally cautious about allowing our fear to overcome our good judgment.