Is Washington terrorizing us more than Al Qaeda?

Phantom menace: is Washington terrorizing us more than Al Qaeda?

Philip Zimbardo

Log on to the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site,, and click on “nuclear blast.”

Thanks to the recently formed agency, ordinary citizens can now get a crash course in emergency preparedness in the event that a big bomb is dropped on their block.

Step one, says the terse tip sheet, is to “take cover.” Step two: “Assess the situation.” Step three? “Limit your exposure to radiation.”

While the well-meaning 300-word document goes on to reveal a few other curious dos and don’ts for a doomsday scenario (e.g., ingesting potassium iodide is definitely a bad idea when radioactive iodine is coursing through the atmosphere), what’s missing from the text is an acknowledgment of the psychological damage that such cursorily assembled, blithely disseminated information can wreak on the public. Presumably intended as a mental health balm in this time of unprecedented global stress, these simplistic big-blast CliffsNotes merely skate atop the frozen pond of the nuclear nightmare, ultimately leaving the befuddled citizen to wonder–and often panic–about the real and present danger that lurks just beneath the ice.

Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security’s site is just one example of a national warning system that in the end stirs up more anxiety than it quells. Loaded with scientific terminology, yet woefully bereft of any tangible data, the U.S.’ early-warning mechanism has transformed us into a nation of worriers, not warriors. Forcing citizens to ride an emotional roller coaster without providing any clear instructions on how to soothe their jitters, the current security system has had a profoundly negative impact on our individual and collective mental health. I call this a “pre-traumatic stress syndrome,” and its effect on our day-to-day lives is debilitating.

Established in March 2002, the U.S. terrorism warning system is broken down into the now-famous color-coded levels of alert–green, blue, yellow, orange and red. The degree of risk changes from level to level, even though the specificity of the threat need not. Beginning with a “low risk” green, the threat levels then graduate to “general,” “increased and predictable,” “likely” (the notorious Code Orange) and culminate with the red-hot “imminent.”

Since September 11, 2001, the state of domestic alert has randomly seesawed through the color spectrum, rising as high as “orange” on at least eight occasions. Each time the color has changed, a public official has stepped before the cameras with explanations that alternate between vague and indecipherable. Goose-bump-inducing terms such as “dirty bombs” and “shelter-in-place” are nonchalantly tossed out, but never are Americans given a soup-to-nuts explanation of exactly what is going on. This exercise in ambiguity doesn’t serve to calm people as intended. Instead, it scares the bejesus out of them. After all, terrorism is not about war in the traditional sense of the word. It is about psychology–about frightening ordinary people, making them feel confused and vulnerable. And, regrettably, the government is unwittingly engaging in this activity as effectively as Al Qaeda.

Like a car alarm that sounds not when a vehicle is broken into, but instead, whenever it passes through a bad neighborhood, the nation’s early-warning system has effectively rendered Americans paralyzed behind the wheel, unable–or unwilling–to step on the gas.

Contemporary clinical data–and my own extended research in this area–prove time and again that to be optimally effective, safety alarms must include four basic components: (1) a credible, trustworthy source communicating the alarm; (2) a disclosure of the specific and anticipated event that has elicited the warning; (3) an effort to reassure those being alerted about the value of unified efforts; and finally, (4) a clearly defined set of actions that citizens can take in order to escape a calamity.

And yet, since September 11, each of these basic principles has been systematically violated in the design and delivery of terrorist “alarms issued by the government.

In the first six warnings after the 2001 attacks, different communicators–from Attorney General John Ashcroft to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge–appeared before the press, alleging that they possessed “reliable” information from “credible” sources that an attack was “imminent.” In most cases, the perpetrators were described as anonymous terrorists; their attack would take place sometime in the immediate future; and their target was any number of unnamed locations in the U.S. (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter). As if this fuzzy description of impending doom wasn’t sufficiently stultifying, officials then stopped short of offering any specific action that citizens might take in response to the supposed terrorist attacks, other than to remain on alert and to keep their eyes open.

Eventually, these widely disseminated, narrowly defined warnings created greater levels of fear, which over time morphed into general anxiety.

The psychological situation worsened when the administration delivered–in the same breath as its warnings–a collateral message to “go about your business as normal.” Rather than give Americans a hook on which to hang their heebie-jeebies (providing facts, for example, that elucidated the wheres and whens of the threats), this unexpected “hey, don’t worry” footnote induced a cognitive and emotional disconnect. After all, how was it possible not to fret after being told that our personal safety and security were now at stake? Naturally, the resulting sense of confusion spilled over into feelings of helplessness.

While the first six post-9/ll warnings seemed, at worst, insensitive to the nation’s emotional state, the seventh, issued in early February 2003, was downright reckless. After downgrading the level of alert to “unlikely” (from the previous week’s “increased likelihood”), Ridge leapfrogged from the precautionary to the preposterous, recommending ways in which citizens could prepare for an attack by the still-unnamed phantom menace. Among these suggestions was sealing ourselves into our homes using plastic sheeting and duct tape. Americans stormed Home Depot. Jay Leno had a field day.

The fact is, not a single terrorist attack occurred on American soil in the 18 months after 9/11. While this was obviously good news for American security, it wreaked havoc on the nation’s psyche. Where were the thousands of terrorists allegedly comprising mysterious cells throughout our country? Where was the debriefing by authorities to explain why, “after all the hand-wringing, nothing ever materialized? The high alerts silently evaporated as quickly as they arose, but the high anxiety remained–and remains–at full throttle.

All of which raises the question: Is it possible for a government to keep its citizens braced for attack without incapacitating them with fear? It is not only possible–it is a historical fact: On the night of April 18, 1775, patriot Patti Revere rode his horse through the countryside from Boston Harbor toward Lexington, warning local Colonial leaders that the British army was fast approaching. Throughout the evening, Revere faithfully adhered to my four-point theory for successful dissemination of public alarms (something of a miracle, I should add, in that I wouldn’t be born for another 158 years). In retrospect, Revere was the perfect messenger delivering the perfect message: (1) He was known to be a highly credible communicator, both expert and trustworthy; (2) his alarm was focused on a specific anticipated event; (3) the alert was designed to motivate citizens to act as a group; and (4) the warning called for a concrete set of actions–namely, fighting back.

As American history books tell you, the day after Revere took his midnight gallop, the Colonial militia trounced the redcoats at Concord. Not a shred of duct tape was needed.


After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era Steven Brill (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

The Warning Solution: An Intelligent Analysis in the Age of Information Overload Kristan J. Wheaton (AFCEA International Press, 2001)

Philip Zimbardo, Ph.D., on a flighty warning system and a nation armed only with orange-tinted glasses.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group