Most of us have almost forgotten about the infamous color code alert system, which was best known not for its effectiveness, but for its tendency to produce fear and confusion.
The original concept was well intentioned. It was dreamed up right after 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security hadn’t even printed up office stationery yet, and there was a need to demonstrate to the public that the government, specifically the Bush Administration, was doing something positive in the area of national protection.
What could be simpler, more visual, and more reassuring than a color code system? It was, in theory, easy to understand, and its graphic nature lent itself to television and Internet coverage.
The problem, of course, was that the chart was not accompanied by specific instructions on how we ought to conduct ourselves depending on the color of the day. Did a “high” alert mean that we were supposed to stock up on Velveeta and other non-perishables? Did “severe” mean we should apologize to everyone we had ever wronged and then blow the 401K and all our credit cards on a trip to the French Riviera? Or was it better to just sit and stew about it?
Worse, there were accusations that the system was being manipulated for crass political purposes, as alluded to in this cartoon.
It’s high time we said “good riddance” to this and other misbegotten schemes, like stocking up on duct tape and plastic film to protect us from biochemical attacks. The best protection is good intelligence and unflagging vigilance. Not perfect, by any means…but the best.