December 24, 2003
Orange Observations, part I

The Federal Government of the US recently raised the "Terror Alert" level to "High" (or, Orange). This is the second highest level, the highest being "Oh Shit!" (Brown?)

The government has stood at this "High" level of terrorist threat on several occasions since the new system had been put into place. Each time, no attack came through. Now the news media -- in general -- pose the idea that there's an element of The Boy Who Cried Wolf going on here. Is there really a greater threat this time? "You bet your life" says the staff of our fearless leader.

This raises a kind of no-win situation for the Guardians of Justice. If they detect that there's a threat, and they prepare for it, and part of the preparations mean alerting the public, then those preparations may 1) thwart the pending attack, or 2) dissuade the potential attackers.

[There's an important distinction here: to thwart could mean to arrest the bad guys, to take away their resources, or otherwise make it impossible for them to pull off the attack. To dissuade simply means to convince the attackers that they should back off for now, because the timing of the attack is no longer ideal, what with everybody paying attention and all.]

The problem with either thwarting or dissuading is that you can't actually demonstrate that the attack *would* have happened once it, well, doesn't. Proving a negative is always problematic. The only thing you can do is wag your finger *after* an attack has occurred and say, "You should have done more." Witness the finger pointing after September 11th. (From "The building should have been built to withstand planes that weren't even invented yet" to "President Clinton should have gotten Osama Bin Laden earlier, even if we didn't have the political will just then to risk invading Afghanistan," and so on.)

So, we've gone to this heightened state of alert a few times, and then the attacks that we were worried about didn't happen. Does that mean we shouldn't have gone to a higher state of alert?

Who can say?! How can we ever know?!

We can't.

The feds say that they have credible evidence that attacks are being actively planned to be carried out within the next month. They've said similar things on previous occasions. And presumably, they weren't doing this just for the hell of it. I mean, really, what political brownie points do you score by telling the public "There's no reason to panic, but LOOKOUT!!!!"

How do you gain politically by telling the population during the busiest economic period of the year that they could be at risk if they travel away from their home?

Hence the no-win situation. Raise the threat level, and you risk 1) nothing happens, which makes you look like the boy who cried wolf, or 2) something happens, which means you were attacked despite your precautions.

Pundits are like Monday morning quarterbacks. They can always say what we should have done after the fact, but it's ultimately up to the guys on the field to make the call as to what to do as events unfold.

Does the fact that I make this observation about pundits and no-win-scenarios make me a pundit, too?


Posted by on December 24, 2003 01:18 AM in the following Department(s): Tidbits


No. It makes you a Republican.

Posted by: Diane S. on December 25, 2003 12:32 PM

I believe there is a political advantage gained from raising the terror alert. It serves to remind the public that the bad guys are out there and that we are "at war" with the terrorists. And when we are in a war, it is much easier to stifle criticism and political dissent by using the “You’re not being patriotic. You should be supporting our president in this difficult time.” argument.
It’s a separate discussion whether this particular change in the alert status is done for such a gain. But this administration seems quite willing to use the “war on terror” and the attacks of September 11th for political purposes.

Posted by: David McKinnis on December 29, 2003 5:55 AM

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On Dec 29, David McKinnis said:
"I believe there is a political advantage gain..." on entry: Orange Observations, part I.

On Dec 25, Diane S. said:
"No. It makes you a Republican...." on entry: Orange Observations, part I.

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