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Politics

Tangerine Alert

5 August 2004

Tangerine Alert

By Gwynne Dyer

Here’s a game the whole family can play. Pick any warning of a domestic terrorist attack issued by the US Homeland Security Department, and replace the word ‘terrorist’ throughout with some other frightening word. It greatly enhances the entertainment value of the statement without substantially changing its credibility.

Take, for example, Secretary Tom Ridge’s recent warning that various “iconic” financial institutions on the US east coast would be on Orange Alert until — oh, probably well into November. Now do the substitution: “Let me be clear: while we have raised the threat level for the financial services sector in the affected communities, the rest of the nation remains at an elevated, or Code Yellow, risk of vampire attack….The vampires should know (that) in this country, this kind of information, while startling, is not stifling. It will not weaken the American spirit, etc., etc.”

It works just as well if you substitute the word ‘werewolves’ or ‘zombies’ or even ‘aliens with anal probes.’ And the reason it works so well is because the ‘terrorists’ being promoted by Tom Ridge and his friends are not flesh-and-blood enemies with clear political goals and coherent (though violent) strategies for achieving them. Acknowledge that reality, and you could end up having to admit that there is some connection between US policies, especially in the Middle East, and the rage of the Islamist terrorists.

It’s much more effective politically to portray them as faceless demons driven by a love of evil and an unmotivated hatred of Americans. When Basque ETA terrorists blow things up in Spain or Tamil Tiger suicide bombers do the same in Sri Lanka, the target population knows that its attackers are real people with specific and limited political objectives. The terrorists that the Department of Homeland Security purports to be defending Americans against could easily be the baddies in an episode of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’

So the Homeland Security people run up the threat levels from Puce to Magenta to Crimson and back down to Vermilion, keeping ordinary Americans in a permanent state of anxiety, and most of the US media disseminate this nonsense as though it had some connection to reality. You would never know from the media coverage that the United States is a country of almost 300 million people where not a single individual has been killed by terrorists in the past 35 months.

You can, if you like, put this down to the vigilance of the various US intelligence and security forces (though they have not actually caught any terrorists who were in the United States and actively planning attacks). You could equally well conclude that al-Qaeda and its friends don’t have sleepers in the US who are able to carry out further attacks, or that the Bush administration’s response to 9/11 so perfectly suited their plans that no further attacks have been necessary.

What you should not be able to do is to portray terrorism as the greatest danger facing Americans today. Americans face a bigger risk of drowning in the bath than of being killed by terrorists (a good reason to take baths in pairs whenever possible), and a far greater risk of dying by falling down the stairs. Even in the tragic month of September, 2001, just as many Americans died in highway accidents as from terrorist attacks, and almost as many died of gunshot wounds.

Terrorism is a SMALL threat which has been inflated for political purposes, and the clearest evidence that this is conscious policy is the irrational but politically astute way that spending has been allocated between competing security threats since 2001. The weapon that caused the carnage on 9/11 was hijacked civilian airliners, and the public’s understandable response was to demand greater airport and airline security. And that is where the great bulk of the administration’s new security spending actually went — even though it made no sense strategically.

The threat, small but real, is from clever, ruthless and versatile terrorists, not from habitual airplane hijackers. Improving aerial security is popular, but it is preparing to fight the last war all over again: not a task the security people can completely neglect, but certainly not one that deserves most of their attention. Meanwhile, only 3 percent of containers entering the United States by sea are subject to random checks, and there are no plans for moving the terminals for the giant floating bombs called liquid natural gas carriers away from the harbours of large cities.

If I were a senior al-Qaeda planner, I would not be in any hurry to attack targets in the American ‘homeland’ again. Even if I did want to destroy America’s freedoms, I wouldn’t feel the need for another attack: when that loaded ‘homeland’ word starts being used by official circles in any language — patrie, Heimat, watan, rodina — you can already hear the symbolic jackboots marching in the distance.

Since we senior al-Qaeda planners don’t actually give a damn about how the Americans run their domestic affairs, I would instead wait until after the November election to see if Bush continues, or Kerry adopts, the current, highly satisfactory US foreign policy of invading Muslim countries and driving their populations into the arms of our Islamist allies. We certainly don’t need to devote scarce resources to the task of scaring the American public when the Homeland Security Department does it for us for free.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Terrorism…cities”)