How Long Can the Country Stay Scared?

By Bruce Schneier
Minneapolis Star Tribune
August 27, 2004

Want to learn how to create and sustain psychosis on a national scale? Look carefully at the public statements made by the Department of Homeland Security.

Here are a few random examples: "Weapons of mass destruction, including those containing chemical, biological or radiological agents or materials, cannot be discounted." "At least one of these attacks could be executed by the end of the summer 2003." "These credible sources suggest the possibility of attacks against the homeland around the holiday season and beyond."

The DHS's threat warnings have been vague, indeterminate, and unspecific. The threat index goes from yellow to orange and back again, although no one is entirely sure what either level means. We've been warned that the terrorists might use helicopters, scuba gear, even cheap prescription drugs from Canada. New York and Washington, D.C., were put on high alert one day, and the next day told that the alert was based on information years old. The careful wording of these alerts allows them not to require any sound, confirmed, accurate intelligence information, while at the same time guaranteeing hysterical media coverage. This headline-grabbing stuff might make for good movie plots, but it doesn't make us safer.

This kind of behavior is all that's needed to generate widespread fear and uncertainty. It keeps the public worried about terrorism, while at the same time reminding them that they're helpless without the government to defend them.

It's one thing to issue a hurricane warning, and advise people to board up their windows and remain in the basement. Hurricanes are short-term events, and it's obvious when the danger is imminent and when it's over. People respond to the warning, and there is a discrete period when their lives are markedly different. They feel there was a usefulness to the higher alert mode, even if nothing came of it.

It's quite another to tell people to remain on alert, but not to alter their plans. According to scientists, California is expecting a huge earthquake sometime in the next 200 years. Even though the magnitude of the disaster will be enormous, people just can't stay alert for 200 years. It goes against human nature. Residents of California have the same level of short-term fear and long-term apathy regarding the threat of earthquakes that the rest of the nation has developed regarding the DHS's terrorist threat alert.

A terrorist alert that instills a vague feeling of dread or panic, without giving people anything to do in response, is ineffective. Even worse, it echoes the very tactics of the terrorists. There are two basic ways to terrorize people. The first is to do something spectacularly horrible, like flying airplanes into skyscrapers and killing thousands of people. The second is to keep people living in fear. Decades ago, that was one of the IRA's major aims. Inadvertently, the DHS is achieving the same thing.

European countries that have been dealing with terrorism for decades, like the United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Italy, and Spain, don't have cute color-coded terror alert systems. Even Israel, which has seen more terrorism -- and more suicide bombers -- than anyone else, doesn't issue vague warnings about every possible terrorist threat.

These countries understand that security doesn't come from a scared populace, and that true counter-terrorism occurs behind the scenes and away from public eye. For earthquakes, the long term security solutions include things like building codes. For terrorism, they include intelligence, investigation, and emergency response preparedness.

The DHS's incessant warnings against any and every possible method of terrorist attack has nothing to do with security, and everything to do with politics. In 2002, Republican strategist Karl Rove instructed Republican legislators to make terrorism the mainstay of their campaign. Study after study has shown that Americans worried about terrorism are more likely to vote Republican. Strength in the face of the terrorist threat is the basis of Bush's reelection campaign.

Speaking about terrorist threat warnings, Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge said: "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security." Despite these words, it's increasingly clear that politics is at the heart of Bush's counter-terrorism program.

earlier essay: Olympic Security
later essay: We Owe Much to DES
categories: National Security Policy, Terrorism
back to Essays and Op Eds

Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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