September 21, 2011

Looking Back to 9/11, Part 11

This is the eleventh and final installment looking back at commentary and poetry I wrote following the events of September 11, 2001. The tenth installment can be found here.

The events of 9/11 led to the development of the color-coded Homeland Security Advisory System, a device that was little understood and much maligned. I wrote about the Advisory System in 2005. The original post can be found here.

From Yellow to Orange

by Lionel E. Deimel
July 7, 2005

Threat levels
In response to the bombings in the city of London, today, Homeland Security informed the world on its Web site as follows: “The United States government is raising the threat level from Code Yellow--or Elevated-- to Code Orange--or High--for the mass transportation portion of the transportation sector.” The CNN link to the story about the change read “US raises alert level after blasts.”

Homeland Security has consistently refered to its color-coded advisory system as specifying a “threat level,” but I had not noticed until today that this terminology represents either fuzzy thinking or deliberate manipulation by the Department of Homeland Security. I hope that, in fact, Homeland Security is raising the perceived threat level; if it is raising the actual threat level, we have a serious need to re-evaluate what this organization thinks it is supposed to be doing! No doubt, the Department would like citizens to believe that the declared “threat level” corresponds to an actual statistically meaningful measure of the current threat from terrorism. Without more information than the government will ever have, however, the “threat level” is simply a best guess of that hypothetical statistic. Homeland Security should call its colored levels “perceived threat levels” or, more reassuringly, “estimated threat levels.”

The CNN use of “alert level” seems to be a headline-writer’s mistake, at least insofar as it does not capture directly the sense of what Homeland Security said it was doing. Because each “threat level” corresponds to a detailed specification of steps to be taken by public safety organizations, however, a change, like this one from yellow to orange, does indeed (and unambiguously) elevate what could reasonably be called the “alert level.” Perhaps Homeland Security should use this term, which emphasizes something the Department does know, rather than something it doesn’t.

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