Jewish World Review Feb. 13, 2003 / 11 Adar I, 5763

David D. Perlmutter

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Consumer Reports

Don't warn me, again | This week, Americans were told to be "more vigilant" because the government raised its terror threat level from "moderate risk" to "high risk."

Once again, nobody told us what "vigilance" means--or what we should do to be "more" vigilant.

Of course, even before September 11, the United States was the most overwarned society in world history. Our hammers carry labels warning us not to use them on body parts; bleach bottles warn us not to ingest the liquid; children's clothing labels intones "do not expose this product to open flame." In the past, we took this overkill with humor.

But no one is laughing now. Our federal, state and local governments have gone warning-wiggy on us and this must end. Please stop warning me. It doesn't make us any safer and only hands cheap propaganda victories to our enemies.

The word "warning" is medieval Anglo-Saxon in origin, meaning "to take heed." As in "Take heed, here come the Vikings to sack our village!" Unfortunately, in our land of the lawsuit, a warning has become a ubiquitous piece of adornment for any product. The purpose lies less in cautioning against a legitimate, clear and present danger than in protecting the manufacturer or service provider.

One effect, especially in saturation media age, is warning-overload syndrome. How many of us actually read all the red-highlighted, exclamation-pointed warning labels on our power-drills, ladders or bed sheets? Do we fail to do so because we don't care about the safety of our families?

No, we just have been warned too many times, too trivially. All the warning labels merge into one big "don't" which we just block out. As a result, most likely we don't pay attention to the warnings that really count.

That's what is happening now with the war on terrorism: Governors, senators, congressional representatives, heads of bureaus, agencies and departments, police and fire chiefs and a legion of other major and minor, federal, state and local government leaders eager to help, eager not to appear unprepared or eager to appear on television are warning us to beware of something. We may have already begun to tune them out.

Connoisseurs of "terror alert" silliness recall what happened a few months after 9/11/ 2001. California Governor Gray Davis, at a press conference, stated that Western bridges might be terror targets. The FBI clarified the matter by announcing that they had "credible evidence," which, however, was "not corroborated." They narrowed the targets down to California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Montana and Idaho. The Justice Department added that their own information was "at a lower level" than the FBI's but, "We are working to verify the validity" of the threats. Got it? Oops, days later, the FBI announced that the threats turned out to be "not credible."

Now Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says we should "contribute to the security of our nation, our families, and our communities." His sole suggestion: devise a "family communication plan" in case on emergencies. I assume he meant that we should all know our own cell phone number. Got it.

We ordinary, uninformed citizens have the right to ask what is the point to all this. If there is a threat, then so be it, but why issue warnings unless we know what or who will be hit when? Can't we just agree that everything in America that is huge, densely populated or valuable is a possible target? And that when we travel abroad, we are targets, whether in Kuwait City or Bangkok?

Terrorists seeking something to hijack or something to blow up or people to kill have lots of choices. We can put up a minimum defense for most of them (security personnel at big suspension bridges) and make others (cockpit doors, nuclear power plants, Disneyland) into fortresses. But we can't turn our country into a barricaded, barbed wire, military compound: then the bad guys have won and we will go broke.

Besides, don't terrorists watch CNN? I can imagine the fun some Al-Qaeda rascals have in the hills of Afghanistan, chatting on cell phones, hoping to be overheard by CIA eavesdroppers. Ahmet: "Yes, it's all set, we blow up Hoover Dam on Tuesday, then all the oil fields in Texas on Sunday." Ahmed: "But first we kidnap Britney Spears? That will bring the infidels to their knees." And so on.

And Maginot lines don't win wars. As Frederick the Great noted, he who defends all defends nothing. Ruthless hunting down of terrorist cells here and in the rest of the world will make us safe, not warnings, moats or stone walls.

I think too that our leaders are selling us short. Human beings tolerate discomfort and danger if they know that the future of their nation is at stake. During World War II the citizens of London were aware that at any moment a German bomb might turn them into putty. But people worked, made love, had tea and mostly didn't panic. Americans are capable of such pluck, too.

If the terrorists blow up a bridge or anything else, we will bury our dead, rebuild the structure and add some names to our "wanted dead or alive, but preferably dead" lists. That's war. We can get used to it.

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JWR contributor David Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He is the author of, among others, Visions of War : Picturing Warfare from the Stone Age to the Cyber Age. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, David Perlmutter