Jewish World Review Jan. 21, 2004/ 27 Teves 5764

How to keep America safe at no cost to the taxpayers. Really

By Edward N. Luttwak | Congress has a rare opportunity to greatly advance the well being of the nation at no cost to the taxpayer, simply by declaring that no government official, high or low, will be blamed or punished for failing to warn of a terrorist attack. That way, officials will have less reason to issue the orange alerts and general alarms that are far too vague to be of any use but can cause serious damage.

Americans are inundated with useless warnings. We're accustomed to seeing ordinary tools, even simple hammers, festooned with labels identifying all the injuries that they might cause — a preemptive measure by manufacturers and retailers fearful of cynical lawsuits for "failure to warn." If their wording specified less obvious and avoidable dangers, the labels might serve some purpose. As it is, they add costs while the very general warnings accomplish little.

The same is true of the public warnings of terrorist threats now frequently issued by the Department of Homeland Security and insistently broadcast by the mass media. Lacking any specifics as to time or place or objectives or methods, they are useless to prevent or protect against terrorist attacks but only serve the officials who issue them, by preempting accusations of negligence.

Where any analogy with the labeling of hammers utterly breaks down, of course, is in the cost — monetary and otherwise. Every time a terrorist warning is issued, a chain of negative economic consequences follows — from the obvious, like airline and hotel cancellations, to the ones harder to estimate, such as psychological effects. International consequences also range from the measurable loss of tourism revenues to more subtle but probably much larger repercussions on foreign investment.

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The purely economic costs are reason enough to do away with the useless public warnings, but the external and domestic political costs are even more important. By projecting images of a fearful United States, these recurring alarms diminish American prestige and therefore the leverage of U.S. diplomacy. Worse still, they encourage attacks, because terrorists are in effect being told that the U.S. remains highly vulnerable.

The greatest of all costs, however, is domestic and cumulative. The successive warnings of ill-defined threats are achieving the very aim of the terrorists. Their purpose is to create fear, in the hope that this will induce Americans to accept terrorist demands.

Homeland Security's color-coded alert system is utterly inappropriate, even for small embattled countries, let alone for the United States. The department is happy with the alert system, but perhaps our new bureaucrats should pay more attention to the practices of those far more experienced in countering terrorism. The Israelis have never seen a need to broadcast alert levels to the general public, not even when at war. Nor did the British see any advantage in acting as if the United Kingdom was "Battlestar Galactica" when under attack by the bombs of Irish terrorists.

Nothing prevents the implementation of the security measures associated with each threat level, without any need to broadcast frightening yet meaningless warnings to the public. In the past, the British contacted police forces by telex and telephone, as did the Israelis, who also used messengers to mobilize each neighborhood's reservists. Nowadays with the Internet, one keystroke can alert our thousands of different police forces and other security professionals.

Nor should anyone worry about a relaxation in the useful vigilance of the public if the alert system is dropped. On the contrary, simply by becoming routine, the alerts now issued are eroding the potential value of a nationwide call to the public, in the event that threat information could truly justify mobilizing all of us.

Some would claim that it is not just the self-protection and self-aggrandizement of the security bureaucrats that are needlessly tormenting us, rather that there is a conscious political design at work to enhance the appeal of the experienced incumbents in this election year. If so, that is all the more reason for both sides in Congress to act now to shut down the alert system, thus proving that neither Democrats nor Republicans are playing politics with terrorism.

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JWR contributor Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2003, Edward N. Luttwak