Don't Panic! January 15 2004

Your war questions answered

What was the Orange Alert all about and what does the government do in response to it?

On Dec. 21, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that the country's terror threat advisory level was raised from Yellow (i.e. wet yourself with fear) to Orange (i.e. vomit amply with fear). Orange is the second-highest alert level after red (i.e. bleedin' time).

Whenever they (i.e. The Man) put the country on alert level orange, we get two reasons. First, they say that it's a response to an increase in so-called terrorist chatter. "Secretary Ridge, Ali told Mustafa that al-Qaeda wants to blow something up and he told a friend and so on, and so on, and so on ..."

Secondly, they say it's a response to a "specific and credible threat," a statement that couldn't possibly be less specific. Nor, for that matter, is it really all that credible to a public going through its fifth Code Orange alert with neither an attack on the country or even a publicized break-up of an attempted attack.

News reports indicate that the latest Homeland hubbub was in part prompted by fears of terrorists hijacking U.S.-bound foreign aircraft. Several U.S.-bound Air France flights were canceled on Christmas Eve after U.S. officials told Le Police in France that some of the passengers scheduled to be on the flights had suspicious names.

So what kind of suspicious names were they? Johnny McHijacker? Billy Explodesplanesguy? No, the names were suspicious because they were supposedly on terrorist watch lists. The suspicions turned out to be false alarms though. The passenger that American officials feared was a Tunisian man with a pilot license turned out to be a 5-year-old boy who, unless he's preternaturally precocious probably isn't a suicide hijacker. Two of the other passengers deemed suspicious by American officials were a Welsh insurance salesman and an elderly Chinese woman.

The one suspiciously named passenger that the French haven't been able to find is supposedly an Afghanistan-born man named Abdul (or Abdou) Hai. It's a pretty common name though. In fact, the Taliban used to have a spokesman named Abdul Hai Mutmaen.

We're especially alert for terrorists boarding flights in Paris ever since Christmas 2001 when Inspector Clouseau & Co. allowed a Briton named Richard Reid to hop on a U.S.-bound flight while wearing explosive-packed shoes. But Air France passengers aren't the only people experiencing the Wrath of Orange. We've canceled, delayed and escorted by F-16 several flights from Mexico and the U.K. as well.

The other Code Orange fear was and is a "Dirty Bomb" attack on a U.S. city. "Dirty Bomb" is what they (i.e. The Man, again) call explosives that are packed with radioactive materials. Around New Year's Day, the government stationed nuclear scientists with radioactivity detection equipment in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Baltimore (which is close to D.C. and has a busy seaport). As of writing this, the only radioactivity found by any of these teams was on Dec. 29 in a storage closet in downtown Las Vegas. Its source was a small radium pellet once used to treat cancer. It was found in the pillow of the homeless man who lived in the closet. Dirty? Probably. But thankfully not a bomb.

As with all of the Code Orange alerts so far, the government has reacted not only to specific threats against specific targets, but also by stepping up security levels at important strategic or symbolic sites around the country. Security at bridges, power plants and dams is increased. Military aircraft are patrolling the skies more. According to the Associated Press, the Code Orange alert has even prompted a tightening of security at, of all places, the Capitol building in Bismarck, N.D. I've been doing some research and the only explanation I can come up with is that North Dakota is the birthplace of Angie Dickinson, whose depiction of the smart and sexy Sgt. Anderson on the '70s TV series Police Woman created an archetype of the liberated Western woman that still grates at fundamentalists.

I didn't say it was a good explanation, just that it's the only one I could come up with.


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