Life During Wartime

Squinting at the many hues of terror


I flew back Monday to a city threatened with devastation. The threat to Los Angeles and its major airport seemed real enough at the time. For the first time since 9/11, flights to a particular airport were publicly cancelled because of expectations the flights would be victimized by terrorists.

Although we are told of specific suspicions regarding certain planned passengers, no would-be hijacker was apprehended in the course of ruining the Christmas plans of hundreds of travelers. Later reports—as vaguely sourced as most intelligence-based reporting tends to be—had it that a forced crash-landing in Las Vegas may have been the plan. Our enemies, of course, hate our freedoms to gamble, ogle scantily clad cocktail waitresses proffering free drinks, and enjoy consummate entertainer Clint Holmes.

The aborted Air France flights weren't the only public threat involving Los Angeles percolating as I flew into LAX. In a story that had remarkably short legs—even most people I talked to in Los Angeles missed it—California was also presented by the Department of Homeland Security with a new wave of biological pathogen air sensors for, um, some reason. Just a normal precaution, I suppose. Certainly, the average newspaper reader would not have any idea what was said by whom about what, or how seriously we are supposed to take it that apparently something happened to make the people watching out for us in Washington think California might just benefit by having some extra bio-pathogen air sensors lying around for the holidays. You never know when unexpected guests might stop by.

Indeed, we never do know. Which confronts us with the true uselessness of the Department of Homeland Security's most public contribution to the commonweal, the color-coded threat level. Shifting in response to a vaguely scientistic metric that mushes together chatter and guesswork and adds them up to a reach a color, the system applies a national standard of alarm to what are surely (if they are worth anything) more localized expectations of threats, and muddles every different sort of threat into one. It is good, certainly, to aim inherently limited security and detection resources to where we have best reason to expect a threat to strike. But to tell all of us, everywhere in America, that we are at high risk for something terrible but hey, just go about your business, seems both contradictory and useless. Only if the warnings are slightly more specific as to their location and nature could this sort of rousing of citizen anxiety do any good.

As I waited for the shuttle bus to the parking lot at LAX Monday, I did note everything seemed a little less hectic since curbside drop-offs and pick-ups had again been banned there. I noted an Immigration and Naturalization Service paddy wagon equipped with red rooftop lights at the curb, and saw at the entrance that the police roadblock had stopped one green SUV and was running a metal detector device under its carriage. (Well, it looked like a metal detector. Considering the SUV's carriage was undoubtedly largely made of metal, I'm not sure what good that would have done. Perhaps the device has some other purpose.) Most cars were let right through with a brief glance from a cop.

Clearly, security lock-downs on airports cannot be complete if we actually want to have a functioning air travel system. Equally clearly, this means that preventing someone from bringing into the airport whatever they were looking for in that one SUV is also going to be impossible unless we are really lucky or the cops standing in front of LAX have an ability to see who is guilty in an instant exceeding even Encyclopedia Brown's.

I've read enough wild comic books and gonzo suspense novels that I take apocalyptic fears a little more seriously than the average American might. No one who has read as many Doc Savage novels and issues of Captain America as I have could escape without having a wider range of what villainous horrors are imaginable than a normal human being. (On 9/11, I was one of the very few citizens of L.A. who, awoken by a phone call three minutes after the Pentagon was hit, in the midst of what seemed at that moment an ongoing series of Red Skull-level violent assaults on major American cities, decided, hey, it could happen here, loaded up the car with water and fresh tires, and drove up the Pacific Coast Highway to Oxnard.)

Still, even the most imaginatively fearful can't help but notice that if our nation is indeed crawling with al Queda sleeper agents with the desire and ability to pull off murderous assaults on our way of life, they are sleeping suspiciously soundly. It seems most likely that America really isn't acrawl with such enemies, and if it is, they are singularly unimaginative and incompetent. Any random gang of Soldier of Fortune-reading teenagers could land serious blows to America's infrastructure every day if they didn't care if they lived or died.

While the color-coding serves no useful purpose for the average citizen, it does do some good for its promulgators in Washington. (Indeed, especially given that we are being steadily infantilized regarding our own ability to protect ourselves—armed marshals on flights OK bordering on mandatory; armed pilots or citizens verboten! —one wonders why anyone other than "trained security professionals" are even supposed to pay attention to the color threat level.) Never again will someone be able to say, if a monstrous crime such as the ones that occurred on 9/11 is repeated, that the government had some good reason to be wary and didn't warn us. Oh, we've been warned all right, with colored banners unfurled. Thus, the warning system functions as bureaucratic ass-covering if nothing else.

More sinisterly—and I hope more unconsciously—it serves to keep us in a constant state of fear. And for each day that the threat that we are warned of does not materialize, it increases our gratitude toward our protectors in Washington D.C. for all they are doing to keep us safe. By keeping us constantly alarmed about what they are planning to do to us, it keeps us from questioning the value of applying Patriot Act anti-terrorism measures to normal crimes, the increased surveillance everywhere, useless I.D.-based security measures at airports, or the interventionist foreign policy that helps create the enmity that is written off by Tom Ridge as merely hatred of our freedoms.

Because of its usefulness to the government, and despite its uselessness to the rest of us, I don't expect the system to go away, until an actual disaster shows it up for the lame security theater it is. Even if our next president is Howard Dean, I'm sure the War On Terror will merely be retconned into the "War on Hate" and proceed apace, equally eternal and equally unwinnable, with people just looking out for our best interests signaling us daily on how frightened we should be—and reminding us how grateful we should be for everything they do as long as it is in the name of protecting us.