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homeland insecurity
by ellen marsh

Well, he’s done it again! And, he’s done it on behalf of his administration bosses. Tom Ridge, Mr. Homeland Security, has come out with yet another announcement of Al Qaeda’s intention to attack us in the next couple of months—most likely at one of the political conventions. Strange that the timing of this announcement once again coincides with low poll numbers for Bush and Cheney. Approval ratings are down; perception of the Iraq war as justified is dwindling. Nonetheless, Bush continues to be seen as tough on terrorism. So, Ridge is sent out to make an announcement that the administration hopes will strengthen that perception in the minds of the public.

Note that Mr. Ridge is unable to give specifics, can't cite any sources, and has chosen not to raise the terror threat from Yellow to Orange. From a news article online, he is quoted as saying that U.S. officials have no precise knowledge of the time, place or method of attack, but said they are "actively working to gain that knowledge."

Any sixth grader already knows that Al Qaeda wants to damage the US. Based on events in Spain earlier this year, everyone knows that Al Qaeda may try to influence the US election process with an attack or attacks. And, the two political conventions are surely perfect targets, since they are both highly visible and directly affect the election process.

Unfortunately, the result of yet another terror announcement has two unwelcome results. First, the “cry wolf” phenomenon is already well established. How many of us take these vague warnings and threats seriously? We feel a bit uneasy each time the administration repeats these formulaic warnings, but we don’t do anything. We know that nothing has happened so far and the information is too vague for us to apply it to any day to day planning.

The second outcome is to strike unreasoning fear in the hearts of vulnerable people. People need to be able to do something, anything, to prevent the predicted event to address this kind of fear. But, rarely is anything concrete suggested with the notable exception of early and ill-conceived advice seal yourself in your house with duct tape in case of chemical weapons. So, now vulnerable people suffer unreasoning fear accompanied by a profound feeling of helplessness. So much for improving the mental health of the American populous.

I would have no objection to announcements of this kind if they were followed by appropriate advice or even reassurance that the government has the situation under control. That kind of advice is never forthcoming, since Ridge is the first to admit that he has “no precise knowledge” in regard to the predicted event or events. I have to wonder how, in fact, he comes to have any knowledge at all.

Based on the timing, frequency, and content of these announcements, I stand by my conclusion that they are to a large degree a political ploy to redirect and even misdirect public attention from the many shortcomings of the Bush administration.


Ellen's recreational writing relieves the stress of working at an insane biotech company. She has too to do (and re-do) every week, because of the knee-jerk, fire-fighting mentality of the management team.

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dan gonzalez
7.8.04 @ 3:22p

Uh, I didn't think they were totally vague. The article I saw was fairly specific. It mentioned the election several times, and that HS had briefed both campaigns regarding the conventions. It didn't seem like useless political smoke.

adam kraemer
7.8.04 @ 3:36p

Yeah. I agree that I wouldn't put it past the administration to use a "security warning" to boost the President's approval rating, but to be fair, if Ridge came out and said, "Watch out for a guy in a green shirt walking down 5th Avenue on September 19th," chances are the terrorists will probably change that plan.

ellen marsh
7.8.04 @ 3:56p

I'm not arguing that specifics of a terrorist plan be laid out. Of course, the terrorists would change the plan. I'm just pointing out the futility of putting out these warnings out without giving the public a plan of action.

Do I know any more than I did before the latest warnings this morning. No, I don't. Are some people sitting at home more frightened than they were before? Yes.

Recent announcements that TSA was looking for Pakistanis with bruises and rope burns coming through US points of entry was similar to "the man in the green shirt" example. Change the shirt; cover the bruises and rope burns. Giving away the plan isn't the anwer either.

robert melos
7.8.04 @ 4:53p

I agree with the 6th graders. Al-Qaeda doesn't like the US and will eventually attack, so be ready at all times. The warnings only serve to work people up and to make the government look as if it is actually doing more than sitting on its butt playing computer games and trying to figure out how to screw the average American out of more hard earned dollars through taxes.

dan gonzalez
7.9.04 @ 3:22p

eah. I agree that I wouldn't put it past the administration to use a "security warning"

I agree with Adam. Remember when Clinton shot cruise missilles at empty tents after his pizza and cigar parties with Lewinsky broke? Like Bill, the current administration is damned any way they handle these things at this point, so they might as well try to get some points out of it.

But anyway, I heard some fairly specific stuff about this attack that hasn't been confirmed by the gov't. Supposedly it's going to involve suitcase nukes that were appropriated via Syrian black-market dealers. 3-9 U.S. cities by the end of the year is what I heard. This scares the shit out of me. Maybe I didn't want to hear it.

stacy smith
7.10.04 @ 10:10a

I have mixed feelings about this whole thing.

Due to lack of faith and trust in any goverment official, I tend to think that Bush & Co are enjoying using scare tactics to keep people at bay.

Then I have to wonder if this is the goverments way of dealing with the guilt associated with 9/11.

A snowball has a better chance of making its way into hell before anybody will really know who wasn't doing their job. The squabbles between the CIA and FBI remind me of a siutation that can be found in any local daycare.

Then there is this whole mentality of the US trying to befriend everybody, all the while China has favorite Nation status. This is the same country that has come out and stated that they have plans of knocking the US off the globe in 20 years.

Which leads me to question what makes Bush (or anyone else in this country for that matter) think we're all just going to get along? Most of the people within these countries don't get along amongst themselves, never mind letting the West coming in by the means of the U.N. and slapping everybody in the wrist for inappropiate behavior. Not that the U.N. does any good anyway, as they cannot seem to figure out how to "blend in." Wearing blue in a country where people don't wear blue means one is going to stick out like a sore thumb. The natives are going to become alittle suspicious. But, now they know all they have to do is wave guns around and the U.N. runs with it's tail between it's legs because of Saddam and Iraq.

My dogs eventually figure out that chasing their own tails is tiring and a waste of energy. When the goverment of this country is going to do the same is beyond me.

lisa r
7.10.04 @ 7:16p

Unless someone goes on the air and says "Incoming at 12 o'clock", I'm operating on the theory that personal vigilance is the best policy.

I absolutely refuse to live my life in fear, because when I do that, the terrorists have won without even firing a bottle rocket at me.

ellen marsh
8.1.04 @ 3:43p

I guess this is in the category of "be careful what you wish for." Tom Ridge's statement was very specific today . Unfortunately, I have a very uneasy feeling that he is telling the truth insofar as he knows it.

robert melos
8.1.04 @ 4:21p

I doubt Tom Ridge or any of the current administration would know the truth until it does come up and bite them in the ass.

We simply have to learn to keep the thought of possible terrorist attacks in the back of our minds at all times, go on about living our lives as we have, and deal with the terrorist aftermath as it happens.

I guess the terrorist factions want George W. Bush as president again, because I feel if they do take action the American people will rally behind Bush because he is good at war and fighting. I personally don't consider those good qualities, but much of the public does.

ellen marsh
8.1.04 @ 6:29p

I fear you are right that any terrorist incident will fall in Bush's favor. My unease is not based on any trust in the administration, but a gut feeling, for whatever that is worth.

In times of fear, many people want a patriarchal government, even if the partriarchy comes without wisdom.

robert melos
8.1.04 @ 8:33p

I was struck by the local news coverage of this. I live in New Jersey, and one of the targets mentioned was the Prudential Building in downtown Newark.

The reporters were detailing the precautions being taken, and I was wondering if that was really in the best interest of anyone? I mean, it pretty much is telling terrorists what they will be up against, while it is perhaps offering a sense of security to people living in the area or working in the building. Kind of the double-edged sword thing.

Truthfully, I don't know as I feel any more or less secure knowing all these safety measures are being taken. The barricades do make Newark look a bit like Iraq, which does not exactly fill me with the warm fuzzies.

ellen marsh
8.1.04 @ 9:13p

I don't think it is particularly useful to give details. Just reassurance that authorities are on the job should suffice. I have a friend who works for one of the branches of the Office of Homeland Security, and he is constantly amazed at the information his bosses give away on a regular basis. For example, he was appalled when he I asked him about a group of people for whom his agency was apparently screening. They were described as "Middle Eastern men with rope burns" and other wounds they might have gotten in terrorist training camps. for whom they were watching. I'm sure those people all started covering their wounds.

ellen marsh
8.3.04 @ 3:50p

Once again I have my doubts. If the recent scramble to put security in place around financial institutions was based on information that is three-years-old, my level of skepticism is again raised to at least ORANGE.

robert melos
8.3.04 @ 4:21p

My skepticism varies between orange and red. Issuing this alert now makes the whole use of the alert system look to be politically motivated, and that's a bad thing. I feel any alert system should be for the benefit of all the people, and now I question it.

On the other hand, after learning this 3 year-old news it reinforces my thinking that we have to be alert to possible terrorist attacks at all times and the actual alert system is useless. It is also interesting to note that I began seeing the recent alerts early Sunday afternoon, yet on the monday evening news employees who work in the building in Newark were interviewed saying they had no idea there was an alert until they got to the the office Monday morning. I guess people don't watch much news.

dan gonzalez
8.3.04 @ 10:01p

Well, again, they're damned any which way they go with the alerts, until they actually thwart an attack while the cameras are rolling.

If they say nothing: they didn't protect us.

If they raise a non-specific, yellow alert: they alarmed us for no reason.

If they raise a specific alert, and the info doesn't pass muster after being scrutinized by the NY TIMES, etc.: It's a sham or a political ploy.

If they ever manage (or have managed) to thwart any attacks by the above measures, but we (or the Times et al.) don't know about it, it didn't happen and Ridge is an idiot.

robert melos
8.3.04 @ 11:54p

Well, Ridge is an idiot, but that isn't what is troubling. As it is, the alert system is mocked and questioned by many, and having made the announcement on Sunday of the potential for terrorism, many were under the impression the information was fresh. Had Ridge initially used this heighten state of security as a "reminder" of previously discovered information and reported the date of the initial discovery, I think people might be less critical.

The way it was posed to the public was a bit misleading. Nonetheless the public should be aware of the threat and should adjust their their schedules/travel plans accordingly.

I wasn't aware the information was 3 years old until I read an article on the fact senators and congressmen were complaining about the closing of a "convenient" road way. This was less about terrorism and more about the inconvenience to a few politicians.

The system is probably the best way of alerting the public, but for some reason the Amber Alert for missing children works better and gets more attention. Perhaps the alert system needs a bit more work?

ellen marsh
8.4.04 @ 12:12a

The reason the Amber Alert system works is that the "authorities" know at least one of the people for whom they are looking.

tracey kelley
8.4.04 @ 8:21a

I agree with Dan - this is a no-win situation no matter what happens.

What I find horrifically ironic is that this type of "alert system" isn't designed to stop Americans from bombing churches, Planned Parenthood clinics, and other government buildings say, oh, I don't know, in Oklahoma City. For many people in America, the terrorist act they might experience is going to be because of a U.S. citizen, not somebody from a foreign land. But to try to address that isn't glamorous, and doesn't win elections.

dan gonzalez
8.4.04 @ 10:58a

Two more thoughts.

1: Not all of the recent info was necessarily old, some unknown amount of it was purportedly updated as recently as January '04. I've seen this mentioned more than once, but not in every article.

2: According to the 9/11 report, Al Qaeda plans things with multiplicity and complexity, has operatives standing by, calls them on, calls them off, etc., over time. By all accounts, they started planning 9/11 in '97/'98, 3 years before executing it. So, I'd say they have to take old info somewhat seroiusly, wouldn't you?

lucy lediaev
8.4.04 @ 11:17a

I think the skeptics are struck more by the timing of the "old" information than anything else. It is truly a "damned if you do and damned if you don't" situation. I truly don't know the best way to raise alerts without:

  1. giving too much information
  2. not giving enough information
Clearly, the likelihood of Al Qaeda moles is very high. Disappearance of a young male university student between home and campus here in L.A. (with no signs of foul play) has certainly piqued my interest because of his middle eastern origin. I'm sure the authorities here have had the same thought.


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