Are Terror Alerts Reason for Hysteria?

A run on duct tape. Fighter jets scrambled after three Middle Eastern men change seats on a plane. A house in Connecticut covered entirely in plastic wrap.

Those are just some of the things that happened after the federal government raised the threat level from yellow to orange on Feb. 7, leaving some wondering how little it takes to throw Americans into homeland security hysteria.

"When you're told constantly, 'don't change your every day life … but at the same time, the threat is increased,' that's a huge disconnect," said Chuck Pena, the Cato Institute's director of defense studies. "The average person has no idea what to do" when the threat level is changed, he said.

The threat levels are based on a five-tiered, color-coded system, with red — "severe" — being the highest and green — "low" — being the lowest. The government this week lowered the threat to the middle, or yellow, level of "elevated."

"It either needlessly raises the fear and anxiety levels of people who take it very seriously or other people just ignore it," Pena said.

During the three weeks the country was at "high," the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies were criticized by some for not giving out enough specific information.

"Threat levels are a little like weather reports," Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said after the alert was lowered. "To say it's going to be cloudy across the country doesn't help much if you're in South Dakota or California."

And talk about stress.

"What we have learned since Sept. 11 is that the unknown is far more terrifying than the known," said Georgia Witkin, a psychiatry professor at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine and Fox News contributor. "For example, when it's pretty clear the threat may be a contained explosive device rather than suicidal terrorists going into the subways, that already causes problems."

Witkin said clear communication from the government is the key to keeping citizens' stress levels down, and to make sure they have faith that their government is making the right decisions.

"The reason terrorism becomes such a major concern … is that it's aimed at shaking faith of citizens in their government," Witkin said. "We need the perspective to counteract the threat against our trust and our institutions."

The media also plays a large part.

When the alert level was raised on Feb. 7, "the media … made too much of it — made it seem too alarmist," said Fox News media analyst and Fox News Watch host Eric Burns. He said the media failed to explain why the alert was raised — such as increased terrorist chatter — and what that meant for the average American.

"Whatever the alert level is that we went to … we were told about that time and time again but very seldom were we told what they meant," Burns said. "If you're not paying strict attention [to the details of the alert], it will alarm you unnecessarily."

Some government critics said it was the media that was trying to fill in the holes left by the government when no specific information was given.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge addressed the nation about a week after the frenzy began, telling them to prepare but not panic.

"I want to make something very, very clear at this point: We do not want individuals or families to start sealing their doors or their windows," Ridge said.

A day later, President Bush said government officials were "standing watch 24 hours a day against terrorism" and that "many of these dangers are unfamiliar and unsettling." Yet he added, "Americans should go about their lives."

"If they don't have any specific information on threat, they should keep their mouths shut," Pena said.

The Department of Homeland Security is apparently trying to get its act together. On Feb. 19, the agency and several other sponsoring groups launched the "Be Ready" campaign with a Web site to educate Americans on how to prepare for and respond to potential future terrorist attacks.

The campaign offers practical suggestions, such as making emergency supply kits, creating a family communications plan and keeping emergency phone numbers near the phone.

"Their goal is to be able to be responsive and proactive instead of waiting for something to happen," said David McIntyre, deputy director of the ANSER Institute for Homeland Security.

Press conferences hours or days after a terror alert is put out aren't good enough, McIntyre said. Americans need to know what to do now — and the Internet is a great way to get the message out, he said.

"My concern is that many leaders, not just the administration ... many leaders were raised in the non-information age and they still think of info as something they can control," McIntyre said. "The age that we are in, the way that you get the story right is by getting the story out — not by controlling the information, but by pushing the information.

"If I see a big light and big cloud out my window, I don't want to hear there's going to be a press conference in cheap bleachers."