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Saturday, August 07, 2004

Waiting for colors to change

Bad traffic jams in Washington this week.

Checkpoints on Constitution Avenue, new barricades on Capitol Hill, restricted parking by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank buildings . . . drivers are learning new routes to work, and the turning, lane-shifting cars leave everyone stuck.

The stoplight turns green, and it's meaningless. Green isn't the important color right now orange is. Orange as in, "orange alert," which Washington has been in since last weekend, when Homeland Security raised the threat level in response to intelligence that indicates possible terror attacks on major financial institutions in Washington, New York or New Jersey.

An orange, "high risk" day. Not red (severe risk), not yellow (elevated risk). Orange.

Other than the barricades, it's tough to know what that means. The color-coded alert system is under heavy criticism. Critics say the Red-Orange-Yellow-Blue-Green threat level system is about as useful as a stoplight with too many colors. Most of the colors aren't even used. Since the system was introduced after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, it's been yellow most of the time, orange when the threat's judged higher.

Never has the alert turned red not even before the Iraq War, with all the talk about buying extra duct tape. Nor have we experienced a blissful green day a day when children will run through meadows knowing that terror is conquered.

The result, critics say, is a meaningless system that isn't specific enough for people to act upon.

This Orange Alert is different for the first time, it's targeted to specific sites. People are still skeptical. It turns out that much of the intelligence the threat level is based upon is at least three years old, and the government is being cagey about what fresh information it does have.

That leaves people wondering about what to do, about why the alert's coming now -- and about whether politics, not security, is ruling threat-level decisions.

The government's hesitancy to share information is understandable it doesn't make sense to tip off terrorists or give away sources by revealing more than necessary. But frustration with lack of openness is understandable too.

This is America -- people like to decide for themselves how threatened they should feel, and "trust our intelligence" doesn't ring too well after the massive failures connected to the Iraq War.

By its very nature, terrorism seems destined to drive the American political system nuts.

Democracy works best when open information is available to informed voters. Terror operations work underground, and disrupting them requires behind-the-scenes work too.

But less information means less accountability, which means more potential for abuse, which means more suspicion of motives. "Winning" the war on terror, in the sense of greatly reducing threats, may happen. Conducting it in a way that doesn't make people suspicious of what the government's doing may be impossible.

Every situation is a tough call. If no warning's issued and nothing happens, then people think everything's fine, even if it isn't. If no warning's issued and something happens, people will wonder why there was no warning.

If a warning is issued and something happens, people will wonder why the attack wasn't stopped. And if a warning's issued and nothing happens, then people will think that maybe there shouldn't have been a warning to start with.

The fact is, warnings serve as a useful deterrent to actual terrorist attacks -- the bipartisan 9/11 Commission notes that in its report (which an encouraging number of people are reading). Shine light on a threat, and it's more likely to shrink away. And when the government's in doubt, it makes sense to err on the side of caution.

But every warning that comes and goes without incident decreases the seriousness with which the warning is taken. How should citizens react? Is the administration overreacting, manipulating? Are its opponents criticizing genuine threats just to score political points?

The honest answer is, we don't know. Opinions you hear are based more on perceptions of how the world works, and on perceptions of motives that are really known only by the people making decisions, than they are on verifiable facts.

But right or wrong, opinions seem to be getting stronger. You can already see that in this campaign year of life-and-death issues. More emotion. More people spinning their wheels. More political gridlock. Everyone's stuck in this traffic jam. Road signs don't help, and there's no easy way out.

The traffic inches along. Turn off the talk show, pop in a CD. Watch the light change color again. Hope the cars start moving soon. Hope security trumps politics. Hope the stoplight's the only alert that ever turns red.