Do We Really Need Color-coded Terror Alerts?

This is a partial transcript from The O'Reilly Factor, December 30, 2003.

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TONY SNOW, GUEST HOST:  In the Unresolved Problems segment tonight, the color-coded terror alert.  A few weeks ago, the feds raised the terror alert to high.  That's orange.

And almost every day there are news conferences about chatter and unspecified threats.

Is any of this doing any good to any of us?

Joining us from Los Angeles, Brian Doherty, senior editor of Reason magazine, a libertarian publication.

Mr. Doherty, let's first talk a little bit about these terror alerts.  I don't know about you, but when they were first presented, I thought they sounded a lot like colors on a beach ball.  It's very difficult to get any sense of terror when people are talking about such bright, happy colors, isn't it?

BRIAN DOHERTY, SENIOR EDITOR, REASON MAGAZINE:  Sure, yes.  It's like you should be consulting the roll of LifeSavers in your pocket as a little mnemonic device to remind you how frightened you're supposed to be right now.

To answer the question you led in with, of course it doesn't do us, as normal citizens on the street, any good at all to know that we're at orange versus yellow versus even red, because that sort of signal is too vague, both in space and in time.

For example, if there's some reasonable expectation on the government's part, that they've heard people talking about, say, blowing up a dirty bomb in Los Angeles, what good does it do to tell someone in Montana or even in New York that they should feel on orange alert?

Or if they know that there's going to be a hijacking on a plane, that might be good to know.  But just knowing that, oh, we're supposed to feel orangey with terror or alertness, is clearly not doing citizens any good at all.

But it is doing the government and the Department of Homeland Security (search) a lot of good, because one thing that they've made sure of is that, if America is hit with another horrible crime along the likes of 9/11, no one is going to be able to say that they had some reason to suspect something would happen, and that they didn't warn us.  Because, by God, we're being warned with colorful banners every single day.  But it's not doing us any good.

SNOW:  Well, OK.  This is the fourth warning of the year.

Now the real question is, if not this system, surely there ought to be something in place, if the feds or somebody comes up with reasonable information.

You got any ideas?

DOHERTY:  Oh, sure.  As I was suggesting earlier, you need to signal the people who need to know with the specific information that the government has or thinks it has.

For example, if they're afraid, like on Christmas Day, that there might be people coming over on an Air France flight who were intending the hijack the plane, that was a pretty good move they made.  They -- though I don't know why they didn't actually arrest or apprehend anyone, why they had to cancel the entire flight, because of a suspicion about a few people.

But that's good, specific, targeted information, as opposed to casting this sort of vague pall of anxiety over the entire country, which in the end, I guess, makes us feel grateful to the Department of Homeland Security.

Because, my God, we've been at a high terror alert for weeks now, and nothing horrible has happened.  My God, they must be doing a really good job.

SNOW:  OK.  There you are.  You're out on the West Coast.  Here we are on the East Coast.  We're both under high scrutiny.  We're at orange plus.

Do you know anybody out there who is feeling any special sense of threat this week?

DOHERTY:  Not at all.  You know, I actually flew into LAX on Monday morning, right after the whole Air France business.  And I noticed, strangely, more immigration service trucks than usual.

And I saw a police roadblock that had stopped one SUV, and was running a metal detector under it, but was letting most cars through, as, of course, they shouldn't have to.  I don't know what that one SUV did that made them search them.

But the fact is, you cannot run, say, a workable airline system and have some complete lockdown where everyone is being searched, everyone is being surveilled, beyond which, that's not a country we'd want to live in.

One of the things that we lose in this whole threat alert system thing is, if indeed this country is crawling with sinister-minded people, actively planning to do us harm -- and I have to say that, years now after 9/11, that these Al Qaeda (search) sleeper agents we're hearing about seem to be sleeping pretty soundly.

But if they mean to do us harm, eventually, most likely and tragically, some kind of harm will occur.  We cannot create a universally safe society, either with color-coded systems or through complete policing and surveillance.

SNOW:  What can ...

DOHERTY:  So, the more specific the threat is, you can specifically try to protect from that threat, not these vague coding systems.

SNOW:  All right.  So, what kind of role ought citizens to play?

After all, you know, there's always fear of police power.  The one sure way to avoid having police power is for people to take a little more responsibility.

So what should folks at home be doing?

DOHERTY:  Absolutely.  And I think it's a shame that instead of encouraging, say, pilots or citizens to be alert and prepared to defend themselves on planes, the government really wants to enforce federal air marshals.

Obviously, you need to try to pay attention.  You need to try to be alert.

But, again, it only helps when you know what you're supposed to be looking out for, you know, again, whether it be a hijacking or the explosion of a bomb.

A hijacking, anyone on a plane can and should be prepared to try to deal with.  Someone trying to blow up a radiological weapon, I'm not so sure.  I mean, maybe the people who sell the material that's used in such weaponry.

It's hard to say.  But it's easy to say that, certainly, telling all of us to just be alert doesn't tell us anything that's really worth knowing.

SNOW:  All right.  Brian Doherty, we'll at least be safe.  Thank you very much for joining us.

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