Do you remember this frightening government-issued warning: Crop dusters may be commandeered by terrorists to dump lethal chemicals on your community?
Remember that warning about dirty bombs packed in suitcases and left at bus stops?
How about those color-coded alerts? Each color corresponded to a different level of paranoia you were advised to live with on that day.
How about the obligatory Christmas season terrorism warnings delivered just as you were headed cross-country to be with family? And never mind that shoe thing at airports, or how we routinely subject children and the elderly to TSA body frisks because a mysterious random process picked them out. Those rituals are second nature to us now.
More recently, there was that toothpaste tube scare and the always present 3-1-1 rule at airports — three ounces, one quart, one carry-on.
And, of course, many of us have had this one drummed into our heads: “If you see something, say something.”
Get the picture? Whether acknowledged or not, for more than a decade we’ve been subject to these types of warnings with no accountability for those issuing them. All we ever hear is that the threat is “unspecific” but “credible.” There’s no imminent danger, but be aware.
These warnings don’t stop us from traveling on planes, attending public events, shopping or riding public transportation. But they do hang over us, drag us down, dampen our spirit. We don’t think about them as much as we once did, but they’re always there.
And that’s what occurred to us when that toothpaste tube warning grabbed headlines. Really? Is this an actual threat? How do we know? Because we’re told it’s “credible?” What are we supposed to do with that information anyway?
Back in 2004, security expert and blogger Bruce Schneier wrote:
Repeated warnings do more harm than good by needlessly creating fear and confusion among those who still trust the government, and anesthetizing everyone else to any future alerts that might be important. And every false alarm makes the next terror alert less effective.
That was written at a time when the wisdom behind these incessant, vague and frequent warnings was being directly challenged. Not so much these days. It is yet another unfounded and unchallenged reality we are forced to live with each day.
Those “credible” threats come and go. They go right through us but they leave emotional residue along the way, slivers of fear, distrust, paranoia. And we no longer stop and ask: Are these warnings really necessary? Are they working?
Prove it. Show us.
Professor Andrew Silke, a psychologist and Director of Terrorism Studies at the University of East London, UK, wrote:
Indeed, the most psychological strain is often not seen when attacks are frequent and common, but rather when they are rare and unpredictable. In the latter circumstances it is harder to develop a sense of control over the situation, and in the end, having a sense of control is important – without it we are much more susceptible to our fears.
In some respects, the U.S. today faces the worst of both worlds. The welcome absence of any terrorist attacks in the homeland since 2001, at one level, creates an impression of normality, yet this impression is constantly being jostled by the frequent warnings and public announcements of a continuing threat. It is an unhappy balancing act which shows no sign of ending soon.
Warn us about hurricanes, tornadoes and blizzards. We can take direct action to protect ourselves under those circumstances. But how do we protect against toothpaste tubes at airports?