Colors of terror

Saturday, June 7, 2003

WASHINGTON -- When Portland Ore., receptionist Colette Belusko was asked to name the current level of the nation's five-color terror alert system, she guessed correctly and flapped her arms in an imitation of a distressed bird.

"Right now, we're at yellow for chicken," said Belusko, 52. "It's chicken because that's how silly these alerts are."

Up and down, yellow to orange and back, the warning system developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks produces confusion, blank stares and the occasional nod of appreciation from citizens.

In the week since the government last dropped the warning from orange to yellow, The Associated Press asked about 50 people nationwide whether they could identify the color of the moment. Many couldn't name it, much less get all five correctly -- red, orange, yellow, blue and green, in descending order of risk.

They seemed to guess every color of, and over, the rainbow.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who's in charge of the system, understands some of the frustrations.

On one hand, he says it provides vital information to law enforcement, businesses and the public about the seriousness of intelligence gathered on terrorists.

On the other, he thinks the system might be better if there were alerts targeted to specific places or sectors of the economy when the intelligence warrants it.

People expressed plenty of ambivalence in the interviews.

"It's a good way to alert people, but the government could be more informative on specific things that could happen," says Ronald Hardin, 39, of Nashville, who pays close attention as the terror alerts move up and down.

He knew all the colors of the alerts and correctly named the current threat level.

Cequyna Moore, 24, of Washington, said she used to pay attention, "but now it's like the boy who cried wolf. It happens so many times that I've grown immune to it."

Take a guess

Jody Harlan, 47, of Oklahoma City, had to think hard about the colors and came up with four. "Red, orange, yellow. I think there's a blue in there," said Harlan, a public information administrator.

"After the Oklahoma City bombing, I guess I'm kind of a fatalist -- if it's going to happen, it's going to happen."

The alert has been up to orange four times since the system was introduced in March 2002. It has never been at the highest level, red, or the lowest two levels.

Lindsay Bergstram, 20, of Newington, Conn., wished the government would be clearer on what it all means.

"I think it's making people scared for no reason," she says. "I don't think most people know what it means."

Bill O'Neil, 29, of Arlington, Va., said all the back and forth has caused unnecessary anxiety -- something he doesn't succumb to.

"It's a charade, a total farce created to patronize the American public," said O'Neill, who works at a fast food restaurant. "I don't see any difference between orange and yellow."

But Bill Teets, 26, a software salesman in Denver who flies to Chicago a lot, is a fan of the system. "I don't change my behavior but I think it's a good system to have," he said. "I like to be informed, because it makes me feel better that we know something."

He got all five colors right but was wrong on the current color, guessing orange.

In some ways the system is hurting more than helping, says Richard Clarke, a counterterrorism official in both the Clinton and Bush administrations who left government earlier this year. He says alerts lead to people canceling business trips and personal plans.

"I'm afraid the changes in the color code terrorize our own people," he says. "The question is, is there another way of doing it?"

Clarke suggested putting out much more specific warnings but only when the intelligence on terrorists provides distinct information about a location or target of attack.

Psychologist Curtis Hsia favors a scale from 1 to 5 because everyone knows the order of numbers. But who instinctively knows yellow is more dangerous than blue?

"I don't think anyone has caught onto it," he said of the system.

People guessed that black, brown, purple and white were part of the alert system. And not just orange, but "burnt orange."

"Red, orange and yellow -- the top three are the ones to get concerned about, right?" asked Marge Fitzgerald, 78, a retired secretary in St. Louis.

There was a mix of uncertainty and savvy in New York City and in Hawaii, where the World Trade Center and Pearl Harbor attacks, respectively, stand as the worst against America in its history.

"I know it's orange when the helicopters fly overhead." said Jaime Chun, a 47-year-old data processor in Hawaii Kai.

Irving Lugo, 42, a Manhattan office supply salesman, said of the color code: "I don't think we take it seriously. Maybe we should.

"I think red is the most dangerous one," he said, "and orange, yellow, and what?"

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